OUR GREAT HIGH PRIEST

Reformation Day: October 31

TEXT: Hebrews 4:12-16

“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).

For me, that passage from the fourth chapter of Hebrews sums up the very heart of the Protestant Reformation.

My purpose here is two-fold— first, to present Jesus Christ as our great high priest, as described in the book of Hebrews; and second, to answer a question: “If we’re Protestant, why would we ever need a priest?”

Let’s begin with some history. On the Eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517, a rather obscure Augustinian priest and university professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 theses—95 questions for discussion—to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany.

Now, that, in itself, was not a particularly unusual thing. In those days, church doors were often used as bulletin boards. All Luther wanted to do was start an academic discussion. He did not realize he was kicking off a movement that was going to tear the apart the Church—and Europe along with it. But that’s what happened. That day in Wittenburg, Martin Luther sparked a religious revolution.

One thing Martin Luther insisted upon—and which millions of Protestants since have insisted upon—is “the priesthood of all believers.” That’s the idea that every one of us who claims Jesus as Saviour and Lord already is a priest. To quote First Peter, chapter two, verse nine, we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”

Each one of us is already somebody important in the eyes of God. Each one of us has a special calling—like a priest—whether we know it, or not! You don’t need a guy with his shirt on backwards to speak to God on your behalf. You can speak to God directly—so, there’s no need for a priest.

Or is there?

Sure, we can speak directly to God. And, yes, God is always eager to listen to us. But … What if you’re stumped for words? Have any of you ever had an experience like that? Like you don’t really know what to pray about? Or what to ask for? It’s like you’re stuck in the snow, just spinning your wheels.

At such times, wouldn’t it be good to have a priest? An intermediary? Someone to bring your needs before God? Someone who is always available?

When we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we proclaim that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. From there, he intercedes for us (see Romans 8:34). Or as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “[Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25).

Alfred, Lord Tennyson observed that “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”*  And he knew what he was talking about. I, myself, have seen mighty miracles of prayer wrought in my life, and in the lives of others.

So, isn’t it good to know we have a great high priest seated right next to God? Someone who pleads our case, and intercedes for us—always?

What a friend we have in Jesus! He’s praying for us right now—praying that we will do the right thing, find the right words to say, find the right direction. He’s praying for our health and wholeness—and for the well-being of our souls.

Someone once said that our God is a “24-7” God. He is always available. So maybe we Protestants do need a good priest sometimes—a great high priest who is always at prayer for us. Think about that. Think about Jesus praying for you—pleading for you—this very moment, and always. Jesus can help us find strength even when we feel the weakest.

And wouldn’t it be nice to have not only a good priest who is always available, but also a good priest who is always effective? In Bible times, the Temple priests had to continually make sacrifices for sin.

Picture it: all those innocent animals lined up to be slaughtered—all that innocent blood shed—day after day, year after year, century after century … and still, there was no lasting salvation from sin! Isn’t that depressing?

Then Jesus, the spotless, unblemished Lamb of God—at once the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice—laid down his life for our sake on the altar of the cross. As it says in our epistle lesson, Jesus offered himself for us “once for all.” Once and for all, Jesus made us right with God. And to gain salvation, all you have to do is believe that. All you have to do is accept that sacrifice, and claim it for yourself. That’s another of the great proclamations of the Protestant church: we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

As the apostle Paul says in the Book of Romans (3:28), we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Rediscovering that principle kept Martin Luther from driving himself crazy.

As a Roman Catholic priest of the Augustinian order, Luther fasted longer, and prayed harder, and confessed more often than any of his fellow monks. He sacrificed more and more—more than anyone else. But still he found no peace for his troubled heart—until he turned to Scripture.

Then, finally, he realized that his sacrifices were unnecessary, because it is Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross that saves—“once for all.” The power of that revelation whipped up a mighty storm. We call it the “Protestant Reformation”—and it changed the world. Some would say it even changed the Catholic Church for the better! And, if that is true, I think it would make Martin Luther very happy.

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).

We have a Great High Priest who made the right sacrifice—once, and for all. Believing in Jesus Christ—crucified and risen—is the work that makes us right with God.

So, maybe we Protestants do need a good priest who is always effective.

I know I could use a good priest who always understands me. It gives me great comfort when I read: “… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin”(Heb. 4:15). It helps me to know that—in the presence of Jesus Christ—my weaknesses, my trials, my struggles, my failures … all of these are understood. God knows what you and I go through, because Jesus has walked that path before us.

Jesus, our great high priest is always available, always effective, and always understanding.

  • Have you lost a loved one? Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35).
  • Are you tempted? Jesus was tempted, too (Mark 1:12-13).
  • Has someone betrayed you? Jesus himself was betrayed and abandoned (Mark 14:43-50).
  • Have you been falsely accused? So was he.
  • Have you suffered pain? Jesus was whipped and crucified.
  • Have you had to confront death? Jesus faced death, too.

He was tested in every way that we are, yet without sinning (Heb. 4:15).

Do Protestants need a priest? I think there is one we all need, all the time: one who is praying for us, one who made the ultimate sacrifice for us, one who understands our weaknesses.

Once again, listen to these words: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God … Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace …” (4:14a, 16).

Yes, my friends, we have a Good Priest—one who prays for us, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

________________________

* “… Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of.  Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day …”

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Morte D’Arthur”
from Poems, 4th edition (London: Moxon, 1845).

 

GET NEARER TO JESUS!

22nd Sunday After Pentecost ~ Proper 25B

TEXT:  Mark 10:46-52

… As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. (Mark 10:46)

“Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me.” 1

Nearer to God. Nearer to Jesus. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? It’s what John and James and Peter and the other disciples wanted, certainly. And it was what a man called Bartimaeus wanted.

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples—with a large entourage—were passing through Jericho. And as they were leaving town, there—sitting at the side of the road begging for money—was a destitute blind man known only as Bartimaeus. That, really, was not so much of a name as it was a reference to the man’s own father; “bar-Timaeus” means “son of Timaeus.” He surely had another name—but Mark never tells us what it was; likely, he didn’t know, either.

Anyway, someone had obviously told Bartimaeus about the amazing rabbi who could make the deaf to hear and the blind to see. And when he heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, Bartimaeus began shouting at the top of his lungs: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

Now, at this point, Mark tells us that many people—and I would guess this probably included at least some of the disciples—try to shut Bartimaeus up. But that just makes him shout even louder: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

So, what’s going on here? Let’s step back for a moment and consider a few things.

First of all, we need to consider what it means that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Even though—right now, in our liturgical year—we are on the threshold of Advent and Christmas, in Mark’s narrative it’s getting close to Easter. Actually, closer to Good Friday.

Jesus is on his way to claim his Kingdom by being enthroned upon a cross. He’s going to Jerusalem to die, and he knows it. That’s what he’s been trying to tell his disciples for many weeks now. But they still don’t get it.

Oh, it’s not that they don’t understand who he is. Not that long ago, Peter had made the bold declaration for all of them: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). They know who Jesus is. They know he’s the Messiah. They just don’t understand what that means. Even though—numerous times—he has told them, bluntly, that he is going to be rejected and killed …

Well, they refuse to believe it. They were expecting—as many Jews were expecting—a Messiah who would raise an army and boot the Romans out of Judea.

They were looking for a Messiah who would set up a new government, with himself as King. That’s why we hear about them arguing with one another over which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:33-34); already, they are jockeying for cabinet positions!

Human nature, right? If you back the successful candidate, you expect a reward, do you not? Which one of them would be Jesus’ prime minister? Or fisheries minister? There were at least three of them who must have felt qualified for that position!

Or even something higher. Remember our gospel lesson from last week? Immediately preceding the story of “Blind Bartimaeus,” we read this account:

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:35-37).

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“Glorify us, Lord. Make us almost as great as you are. Make us wealthy. Give us seats of power. Titles. Honour. Expense accounts. A senator’s pension.”

“Bartimaeus, what do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

Two very different requests. And each one tells us something about the ones who ask.

The disciples want to get on with the business of setting up the Kingdom. But they do not understand that stopping for a blind beggar is exactly what Jesus’ Kingdom is all about.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

In Jesus’ day, people with disabilities were, for the most part, socially powerless. The blind, the lame, and others who could not work for a living were able to support themselves only by begging—normally on a busy roadside.

Judaism considered it righteous to help them. And Jericho was a prosperous town with a good climate. No doubt, Timaeus’s son received adequate—even generous—support there. So Jesus’ followers may have thought this guy was really not so bad off.

In any case, they appear to have regarded Bartimaeus’s loud pleading as a kind of intrusion—just like when the children came to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16) and “the stern disciples bade them to depart” (to quote the old hymn).2

Remember, they were on their way to Jerusalem, to install Jesus as their King. This was a royal procession! How dare this blind beggar disrupt things?

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy. Help me!”

“Call him over,” Jesus says. And he stands still, allowing the blind man to come to where Jesus’ voice had last sounded.

So the people call to Bartimaeus: “Come on! It’s your lucky day. Jesus is calling you.”

The blind man springs to his feet. He doesn’t even bother picking up his cloak; he just hurries over to Jesus. And the Lord asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man answers, “Teacher, I want to see again.”

Jesus says to him, “Done! Your faith has paid off. You are made whole.”

And Bartimaeus receives the gift of sight. Yet, it occurs to me that this man—who could not read the Scriptures, or witness miracles and mighty works; who had no idea what Jesus looked like … Bartimaeus had another kind of vision. God had opened the eyes of his heart.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Scripture tells us:  “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).

You will not cry out to the Lord when your heart is blinded to him. Bartimaeus was longing for the Lord, and he would cry out to him, until he was heard. And Jesus did hear him. A whole multitude was following him, but the cry of this blind beggar was important to him. In fact, it was as if Jesus himself was longing to hear it. So he stood still and called Bartimaeus over.

That’s what Jesus does, you know. The Lord stands still when he hears you call his name. To him, each and every human soul is priceless. He pays no attention to colour or race or social standing. He does not care about what sort of car you drive, or about the size of your bank account. He does not look at names or titles or résumés. No. He looks into human hearts, and he sees that—without exception—each one of us needs him the same.

Until we meet him, we are blind. And when we meet him, we receive our sight. As the Book of Acts, chapter 26, verse 18 puts it:  our eyes are opened, and we are turned “from darkness to light.”

Turning to Bartimaeus, Jesus says:  “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight. And immediately, he follows Jesus on the way.

What a picture of confident faith! I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to Thomas in the Gospel of John: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Bartimaeus could have had one thousand doubts about calling on the Lord.

“What will people say? I mean, I’m just a lowly beggar.”

“Maybe it isn’t true. Maybe it’s all a hoax, a trick, an illusion. Maybe Jesus can’t really heal anybody.”

“Maybe I should ask the priests first; maybe I should find out what they believe about this guy.”

Bartimaeus could have listened to his doubts. He could have obeyed the voices telling him to be quiet. He could have stayed put there on the roadside, with his beggar’s basket and a measure of security. But then he would have stayed blind forever.

Here’s the truth:  if we want healing—if we want to receive our sight—we need to ask. We need to cry out to Jesus.

And here’s another truth: Jesus of Nazareth is passing by us—right now! He passes by you. He passes by me.

We can stay quiet, or we can call out to him. We can stay put—chained in place by our thoughts and doubts and reasonings. Or we can spring to our feet and follow him. And we can do that with confidence, for Jesus himself has promised that he will never reject anyone who comes to him (John 6:37).

That’s Jesus’ pledge to all of us who think we’re not worthy, not good enough, too far gone. Cry out to him. Come after him. He will make time for you. You can get near to Jesus. It is not a hard thing to do!

Blind Bartimaeus had faith in that promise. And, by the side of a well, a Samaritan woman discovered its truth (John 4:1-26). It’s what the disciples themselves found out, when they tried to give those children the brush-off (Mark 10:13-16).

There’s a song about all of that. Close to 40 years ago, Ralph Carmichael used each of those gospel images when he wrote the lyrics.

Right there in the dust, he sat by the gate, 

To listen to footsteps and patiently wait. 

The blind man just didn’t dream that this was the day 

That Jesus of Nazareth would pass by his way. 

 

She stood by the well, so tired and alone, 

Misfortune and heartache was all she had known, 

She looked at the stranger, but who would ever think, 

‘Twas Jesus to offer her living water to drink. 

 

They were only wee children so happy at play 

And told to stay quiet and out of the way; 

But then came the Saviour with arms open wide, 

They’re part of His kingdom, make room by His side. 

 

My friend, if you’re listening now humbly to me 

Yes, this is the moment that you can be free.

This very same Jesus is right here today; 

Release your faith and touch Him, then believe me when I say:

 

Something good is going to happen to you;

Happen to you this very day. 

Something good is going to happen to you;

Jesus of Nazareth is passing your way. 3

 

Believe, my friends. Trust. Cry out. Follow. Amen.

______________________

1 “Nearer, My God, to Thee” (public domain) Sarah Flower Adams, 1840.

2 “When Mothers of Salem” (public domain) W. M. Hutchings, 1850.

3 “Something Good is Going to Happen to You” Copyright ©1969 by Lexicon Music, Inc. Written by Ralph Carmichael.

THE HEART OF IDOLATRY

21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24B)

TEXT: Mark 10:35-45

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

James and John, the sons of Zebedee … James and John, the fisherman’s boys … the pair called “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) … They came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Do you notice the elegance of their request? “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Whatever we ask of you.” James and John are shrewd, crafty guys. Let’s say one day they want so much gold they can go swimming in it. Another day, a harem of beautiful women. Or endless buckets of fried chicken …

If they change their minds and decide they want a huge palace, or if they want to replace Tiberius as Emperor of Rome … well, they’d have all of those requests covered. “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

You know, there are all kinds of different paths to the good life. Some people say, “I’m going to earn the good life for myself. I don’t need or want God’s help! When fame, wealth, and power come my way, I will have achieved those goals with my own two handsmy own hard work!

But not James and John. They want a shortcut—a religious shortcut. Their message is, “Hey Jesus, you know how we’ve been helping you out here in your ministry? Well, how about a little favour in return? Give us whatever we ask for.”

Sounds incredibly selfish, doesn’t it? Maybe even childish. But, look: let’s be honest, here. I can identify with James and John. Can’t you?

Jesus asks them: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

And they reply: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

As I think about that, I realize that, yes—I want to bask in glory one day, sitting at the right hand of Jesus in heaven.

We’ll get to the next life and everyone will be using their heavenly binoculars to look at me from miles away, and they’ll say, “Wow! There’s Grottenberg! Look at that! He’s at the right hand of God!

“I had no idea. I should have sucked up to Gary when I had the chance. Now look at me! Even though I was a fully ordained minister and wore all those priestly garments and had everybody call me “Reverend” … NOW, I’m scrubbing toilets in heaven—for the rest of eternity!”

That’s my dream. If I’m being honest, I want Jesus to give me whatever I ask for. And why not? We’re talking about Jesus, after all! Why not ask?

I think each of us faces this problem. I suspect that—on some level—all of us can identify with James and John. Why? Because this passage reveals to us the heart of idolatry.

Now, what is idolatry, exactly? Is it about literally worshipping images carved out of stone? Well, that counts. If you are bowing down to rock carvings and offering sacrifices to them, that is definitely idolatry. No question about it. But, more generally—and more commonly in our day and age—idolatry is about turning good things into ultimate things. Idolatry is about worshipping something other than God.

Worshipping an idol instead of God means that we replace God with something else—something we think is good … and which … we really, really want! And when idolatry goes unchecked, we can even wind up asking God to help us worship our idols! Think about that: We ask God to help us worship our idols.

We may not go for the unconditional “give me whatever I want” approach. Most of us are more humble about it—and much more specific, as well:

  • “God, I promise I’ll do anything for you, if you’ll just get me an ‘A’ on this exam.”
  • “God, I know I haven’t been to church in a while, but … please, I need a raise at work.”
  • “God, I’ve been sacrificing everything for you. I’ve been at church every week. I’m just asking for a girlfriend in return.”

Can you imagine if you did this in any other context? If I said to my wife, “Iris, I need your help.” And she said, “O.K., how can I help you?” And I said, “Can you find me another wife?” …

Iris would not be amused.

If I am looking for a wife … well, I’m already married. Asking my current wife to find me another wife is illogical and offensive (not to mention dangerous). But that’s what James and John are doing—even though they don’t realize it. They’re saying: “God, can you please give us another god to worship?”

We laugh at them. We shake our heads. laugh at them, and I shake my head. But then, I wonder … What if I am just like them? Do I desire God? Or what I think God can give me? Sometimes, I’m not at all shy about asking God to do my will.

Maybe we think James and John are being too direct. But what about the other disciples? Look at verse 41: When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”

Was that righteous indignation? Or was it jealousy? Maybe they were upset that they hadn’t thought of it first—to ask Jesus about sitting beside him in glory. Maybe, secretly, they had been thinking: “If we just keep our heads down and work hard, I’ll bet Jesus will give us whatever we want.”

But then James and John cut in front of the line. They made their request in private, trying to elbow their way into first place. According to Matthew’s account of this story, they even had their mother there! The whole family was involved. And all of a sudden, the hearts of the other ten disciples are revealed: they wanted the same thing as James and John, but they were too embarrassed to say so.

So, what about you? Are you the direct type? Do you tell God—straight up—“Here’s what I want you to do for me …?” Or do you go for the indirect route? Outdo others in your religious devotion. Make greater sacrifices. Be more obedient. Be more radical. More socially just, more culturally relevant. And secretly, deep down inside your heart, do you hope that God will notice? Do you hope that God will reward you?

Whatever your strategy, wouldn’t it be great if God would do whatever you asked him to do? If you’re like me, you gotta admit that—like it or not—you’ve got a selfish streak!

Back to our gospel lesson. How does Jesus respond to his selfish disciples? Does he say, “Because you asked for so much, I am not going to give you anything, ever …”?

Does he say, “You’ve gone too far this time. You are no longer my disciples …”?

Does he say, “Your request is outrageous! I am ticked off. You are going straight to hell …”?

No. He doesn’t say anything like that. Instead, he refers to his upcoming crucifixion. He says, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

These are, of course, thinly-veiled references to his impending death. The disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about, but we do. For we have the benefit of hindsight.

Jesus was saying: “I’m not going to be that kind of king. I’m not going to be wealthy. I’m not going to be popular. I’m not who you think I am. I am going to give my life—on a Roman cross—to pay for the sins of the world.”

In verse 45, Jesus gives us his mission statement: For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Isn’t that amazing? Jesus’ closest friends are money-grubbing, power-hungry, “yes-men” who are trying to use Jesus to get what they really, really want. And how does Jesus respond?

Does he say, “O.K,, here’s the deal. You put in three years of blood, sweat and tears, and I guarantee you good positions in my cabinet …”?

Does he say, “Cast out 400 demons in my name and I’ll see to it that you get a lavish pension …”?

No. He says, “I do not want your service. I want to serve you.”

This is like a high-speed collision—like two cars smashing into each other at 100 kilometres an hour! The disciples exhibit all their selfishness. And Jesus exhibits all his selflessness.

The disciples say: “Give us whatever we want.”

Jesus says: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Do you get that? Do you see how much God loves you? We come to God saying, “gimmie, gimmie, gimmie.” And God says, “I love you more than that. Those things you think you want … you need more than that! You need salvation. You need redemption. You need someone to die for your sins. You need someone to rescue you from your selfishness and your idolatry. So here’s the deal: I’m not going to give you these small, petty things; I’m going to give you my very life!

You know that cup Jesus says he’s going to drink? Here’s what Psalm 75 says about it: “In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs (Psalm 75:8).

And then there’s the Book of Isaiah, chapter 51: Stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17).

Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath. He drank it to the dregs, so that we might experience forgiveness and be reconciled to God. Does that not move you? Does that not thrill your heart? Does that not make you fall in love with God? Are you not awestruck by the immensity of what God has done?

Once you encounter Jesus—once your selfishness collides with Jesus’ selflessness—you will be changed. The original disciples were certainly changed. Jesus predicted that. He told James and John that they also would suffer greatly for the gospel—as, in fact, they did.

James became the first apostle to die for the faith, when King Herod had him put to the sword (Acts 12:2).

And—even though he may have been the only one of the Twelve to die a natural death—John endured persecution and exile and the anguish of seeing his dearest friends martyred.

The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized … whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:39, 43).

Our world is run by people who lord their authority over others; but imagine a world where people use their authority—use their power—to serve others like Jesus did.

That is Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven. May it become our vision, too.

 

THE BIGGER PICTURE

Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday

TEXTS: Matthew 6:25-33 and Hebrews 4:12-16

 

“So I’m telling you,” [said Jesus,] “don’t go worrying about your life, about where your next meal is coming from or what you will find to drink. Don’t stress about what you look like or whether you’ve got the right clothes to wear.

“Life is more than food, isn’t it? And the body is not just a clothes rack, is it? Look at the birds flying around. They don’t do any farming. They don’t stock up the pantry with extra supplies. And yet your Father in heaven feeds them. You are worth more than they are, aren’t you? So what good does worrying do you? It won’t make you live any longer—not even an hour—will it?

“And why do you worry about what to wear? Think about the wild flowers.

“They grow without ever shopping or sewing a stitch. But you can take it from me that they are clothed more perfectly than even a princess at a royal wedding. If God takes such care over dressing the wildflowers, which bloom today and are mown down and composted tomorrow, how much more care will God take to make sure that you have the clothes you need? Yet you find it hard to trust!

“So don’t get all anxious and go asking, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘Where will we find a drink?’ or ‘What on earth will we wear?’  It is the people who don’t put their trust in God who put all their energy into these things.

“You can rest assured that your Father in heaven knows perfectly well that you need these things. So you can make your first priority the new culture of God and doing the right thing, God’s way, and all these other things will be taken care of for you.”*

That’s our gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Sunday, from an Australian Scriptural paraphrase by a Baptist minister called Nathan Nettleton. It’s Matthew, chapter six, beginning at verse 25.

The Revised Common Lectionary ends the reading after verse 33. I’m not sure why. Because there’s only one remaining verse in that chapter—and it’s this one: “So don’t stress out about tomorrow,” Jesus said. “Just deal with the troubles of today, and leave tomorrow’s worries until they come.” *

Or, as the King James Version renders it: Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Give no thought to tomorrow. Don’t worry about food or drink or clothing. Or the mortgage payment. Or your children’s education. Or your own retirement.

Really? What kind of crazy advice is that? I mean, that’s right up there with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), isn’t it? Or with “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

All of these quotations—including that famous “lilies of the field” reference—are from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” recorded in chapters five through seven of Matthew’s gospel. And if we weren’t so used to hearing them—so used to hearing Jesus say things like, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:40) … we might take him seriously!

We might take Jesus seriously. And if we took him seriously, we might want to ask him, “Lord, what were you thinking?”

What were you thinking, Jesus? That is terrible advice! If we didn’t bother to plan for the future … what would become of us?

Jesus, you’ve got your head in the clouds. You just don’t know what it’s like to live in the real world.

Be honest. Have you never thought that maybe Jesus of Nazareth was just a starry-eyed idealist? With no clue about what life is like for those of us who do have to think about mortgages and grocery bills and credit card statements? Jesus never had to pay off a car loan. He walked everywhere! As far as we know, the guy had no wife or children to support. No financial commitments. No obligation to be in the office or in the shop on Monday morning—and to get there on time.

So we hear these words of Jesus and we shrug them off. We dismiss them because … Well, maybe because we’re afraid that if we think about them too deeply, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus was just a starry-eyed idealist with his head in the clouds. And we don’t want to go there. But on Thanksgiving Sunday, that is precisely where the gospel takes us.

So … was he? Was Jesus simply out of touch with the real world? Disconnected from the real lives of ordinary people?

I think the answer to those questions is a resounding NO! For one thing, Jesus of Nazareth—for most of his life—was an ordinary person. He was raised by a small-town carpenter who must have often struggled to support his wife and growing family. All you have to do is look at the average tradesman today, and you get some sense of how up-and-down that life can be. When there’s plenty of work around, things are good. But when the economy slows down, and the work dries up, life can get pretty tough.

There’s no reason to think things were any different in Joseph’s household. And if—as many attest—Jesus himself earned his living in the trades … he would have known how hard it could be to make ends meet.

Yeshua bar Yosef—Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth in Galilee—was ordinary enough that, to begin with, even his own siblings questioned whether he’d really been given a mission by God (Mark 3:21, 32). And the people in his hometown synagogue certainly were not convinced: Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Matt. 13:55-56). Who does he think he is? Matthew’s gospel says that “they took offense at him” (13:57).

It wasn’t until after the fact—after Good Friday turned into Easter morning—that large numbers of people did begin to take Jesus seriously. However, those who did take him seriously right from the start—his original disciples—quickly learned that this was a man without rose-coloured glasses (and not just because they hadn’t been invented yet!).

When his followers wanted him to raise an army and boot the Romans out of Palestine, he immediately threw cold water on that idea.

Why? Well, probably at least in part because he sized up the chances of success and realized that the Jews were outgunned; they simply were no match for the Empire’s well-trained, well-disciplined, and battle-hardened troops. Any uprising would be swiftly and brutally crushed. Jesus knew that very well. And besides, that wasn’t the kind of Messiah he was called to be.

No. This carpenter-turned-travelling-rabbi was neither impractical nor naïve. So what, then, are we to make of his “do not worry about tomorrow” speech up on the mountain?

We need to consider who Jesus’ audience was that day. He wasn’t addressing the House of Commons or the United States Senate or the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. He sat on a hillside and spoke to “the crowds”—as Matthew tells us at the beginning of chapter five.

And while there may have been a handful of VIPs present, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of those assembled were from the lower strata of society. Ordinary fishermen. Unskilled labourers. Slaves. Women. The working poor. The least of the least. His usual audience.

See, when Jesus counseled them to trust in God and not worry about tomorrow, he knew he was speaking to people who really had few alternatives. There was nothing much they could do to improve their circumstances. He knew that, and so did they—which surely must have been a source of deep concern for them. When you know you’re in a precarious situation—and especially when you realize there’s nothing you can do about it—what are your choices?

You can worry. Or you can take the risk of trusting in God. Trusting that—if you ask your heavenly Father for help—somehow, things will turn out all right in the end.

That isn’t as easy as worrying, I guess. But it’s certainly no less productive. In my own life, if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: the more I trust God, the less prone I am to panic about things.

Anyway, once we consider all of that, perhaps Jesus’ address to these folks makes a bit more sense. To those of us who have stock portfolios to tinker with—or who just have secure and steady employment—he might well give a different message.

Yeah. I kind of think so. My guess is that his words were to some extent tailored to his audience on any given occasion.

Why? Because Jesus of Nazareth was anything but naïve. He always seems to have known exactly who he was dealing with—whether it was a disenfranchised peasant hoping for a crust of bread or a “rich young ruler” seeking wisdom. To the one, he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” And to the other, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21).

There’s a bigger picture, too. The Letter to the Hebrews touches on it when it describes Jesus as our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14).

The role of a high priest is to make intercession for ordinary people, and the author goes on to say this: “… ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who, because of his likeness to us, has been tested [in] every way, only without sin” (4:15).

The bigger picture is: this Jesus—who has become our great high priest in the court of heaven—is not only our Saviour and Christ. Scripture and tradition informs us that he was God in human form—the Divine Word that “became flesh and lived among us,” as John’s gospel (1:14) says.

That is the simple truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation; in Jesus of Nazareth—son of Joseph and Son of God—the Creator of the universe became, in some incomprehensible way, one of his own creatures. Jesus was truly and fully God, and yet he was truly and fully human, as well.

Don’t fry your brain trying to make sense of the paradox; you’ll never do it. Not in this lifetime, anyway. But, you know what? That doesn’t matter! The important thing is: Jesus really does know our every weakness. Jesus really does understand our trials. He knows how strong—how seductive—temptation can be.

The God who lived through Gethsemane knows what it is to feel anguish, to be in fear for one’s life, to want to escape from a desperate situation. To find a way out. Jesus—who faced the tempter in the desert—Jesus understands how reasonable it may appear to cut corners, to compromise and avoid unpleasantness: “Just this once; what’s the harm?”

Jesus understands. He’s been where you are. He’s tasted all of our human existence—joy and sorrow; disappointment and satisfaction; anxiety and relief. He has even died our death. And he has defeated the grave.

Here’s something for which we can all be truly thankful today: even as Christ was identified with us in his dying, so also are we identified with him in his rising. Easter morning was not only the triumph of the Son of God over sin and death; it was also God’s promise to us—his assurance to us—that we, also, shall be raised. The grave was not the end for Jesus; it’s not the end for us, either. God’s “bigger picture” includes you and me.

And—as I think about it—I guess maybe that brings “the lilies of the field” into the bigger picture, too. For if we are truly held in the hands of God (as I believe we are) and if our God is trustworthy (as I believe he is) then, in the economy of heaven, tomorrow will take care of itself!

So, today—as you tend whatever turkeys are in whatever ovens—I hope you have some lilies on your festive tables. Or flowers of some kind, to remind you that you really are not alone as you face life’s challenges and enjoy life’s blessings. And that you are not in charge, either. Which—in the bigger picture—is a very good thing!

And—because you and I are part of that bigger picture—there’s even better news. Whatever is going on—however substantial our problems or how shameful our mistakes—Jesus understands! And, through him, we may indeed “boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in his grace find timely help” (Heb. 4:16).

Will someone say, “Amen”? Thanks be to God!

_____________________________________________

* ©2008 Nathan Nettleton LaughingBird.net

NOW WE ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST

A Sermon for World Communion Sunday

On the first Sunday in October, many Christian churches across the globe join together in celebrating World Communion Sunday.

World Communion Sunday began at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933. The Rev. Hugh Thompson Kerr and his congregation sought to promote the interconnectedness of Christian churches, regardless of denomination. Quite appropriately, Rev. Kerr chose the sacrament of Holy Communion to symbolize this unity.    

It was then adopted throughout the US Presbyterian Church in 1936 and subsequently spread to other denominations. In 1940, the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches) endorsed World Communion Sunday and began to promote it to Christian churches worldwide.

Today, World Communion Sunday is celebrated around the world, demonstrating that the church founded on Jesus Christ peacefully shares God-given goods in a world increasingly destabilized by globalization and global market economies based on greed.

TEXT: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ (1 Cor. 12:12).

That quotation from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us that the human body was the apostle’s favorite metaphor for the Christian Church. I think it’s my favourite, also.

The human body seems almost infinite in its complexity, made up of billions upon billions of tiny cells. There are more cells in your body than there are people in the world.

Our blood is circulated through 60,000 miles of tubing reaching to every part of the body. If all the veins, arteries, and capillaries were laid end to end, this tubing could be stretched around the earth more than seven times!

Every day the human heart circulates over 5,000 litres of blood. The heart is an amazing pump that never seems to get tired and which never takes a rest.

An adult human body has more than 200 separate bones, and over 600 muscles.

Our nervous system is a highly efficient communication apparatus, carrying messages to and from the brain. Nerve impulses can move at a speed of nearly 350 feet per second. They can zip up from a person’s feet and back again more than 30 times in one second!

And the human brain is more complex—and mysterious—than any computer manufactured by Dell or Apple. In fact, the entire human body is the world’s most incredible piece of machinery. Engineers have built different kinds of robots—but even the most sophisticated of these cannot come close to doing everything the human body can do.

No wonder Paul loved this metaphor! And it’s a very appropriate one for us to contemplate on World Communion Sunday—especially when we consider some other passages written by the apostle.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul states—flatly and emphatically—that Christ “is the head of the body, the church” (Col. 1:18). In Ephesians, chapter one, Paul says that God has made Christ “the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

And later on in Ephesians—in chapter four—he urges us to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

“Now we are the body of Christ—and, individually, members of it.” But Christ is the head of the body!

Some in the church may find this hard to believe, but … it’s kind of important that a body has a head! No. Really. It is.

Without a head, the body has no direction. No coordination. Nothing to tie all the body parts together and make them work together harmoniously.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the saying, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” If you’re not … I can give you a link to a quite horrifying YouTube video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJtnszk-CcA].

It’s really true: after decapitation, poultry sometimes runs around for several minutes in an uncoordinated and frenzied manner. If you do something as a headless chicken would do it, you do it very quickly, and without thinking carefully about what you’re doing.  You act in a haphazard or  aimless way … frantically … without control.

Today—on World Communion Sunday—we have to acknowledge that the Church of Christ has been too often like a headless chicken.

Too often, we’ve looked to something other than Christ to give us direction. And so, we’ve found ourselves … well … lost. Or, at least, confused.

Yeah. Confused … misdirected … caught up in politics or creeds—or controversies about doctrine, procedures, and protocol.

When you look back upon two millennia of church history …

Frankly, it’s kind of sad. It’s appalling, actually, to consider the sorts of things that have divided us—which have put us at odds with one another. The sorts of issues that have separated sister from sister, and brother from brother, have been, at times, bizarre!

For example, one of the earliest controversies within the Christian Church—way back in the fourth century—centered around the ideas identified by two Greek words: homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) and homoousios (ὁμοούσιος). This all had to do with the question of just exactly how Christ was related to God—or, what it means to say that Jesus is “the Son of God.”

Homoiousios means “of a similar substance,” and homoousios  means “of the same substance.” These two Greek words differ by a single letter: iota. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon—in his History of Christianity—pointed out, with some ridicule, that the church was very nearly split by the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet!

Even the Lord’s Table—which is the focal point of “World Communion Sunday”—has become a source of contention amongst Christians. Do the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s body and blood? Or do they, somehow, miraculously become—literally—his flesh and blood? The Bible does not address this question. When we look at the text of the New Testament, we see that Jesus merely asked us to remember him as we eat and drink.

But, you know, the issues that divide us are not confined to the “big questions” that pit one denomination against another. No. Far, far worse are the kinds of issues that can tear a local congregation apart.

And, truth to tell, these parochial concerns tend to be even more ridiculous—and sad—than the larger controversies that separate one brand of Christianity from another.

Here’s a story … I’ve told it here before, but I think it bears repeating. Those of you who are of my generation—or who were alive during the 1960s—may remember an American Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd (1923-2015). He was the author of a number of popular books and articles and scholarly works. He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement as one of the Freedom Riders in 1961 and in the anti-Vietnam War movement. 

In one of his books, he related an incident from his own experience in pastoral ministry. He also mentioned it in an address he gave, and he prefaced it by saying: “This really happened; I’m not making it up.”

In a nutshell, the story goes like this. In a congregation Boyd once pastored, a controversy arose. A fierce one, bitterly contested.

It wasn’t about some great issue like the “nature” of Christ or the reality of the Virgin Birth or the Trinity or anything like that.

No. It was about the colour of the church doors.

Yeah. That’s right. The time had come to repaint the front doors of the church building, and this became an occasion for conflict. Why? Because some of Boyd’s parishioners wanted to paint the doors red … and others thought red was a scandalous colour for the doors of a church!

To make a long story short … in the end, the doors were painted red, and—as Malcolm Boyd told it—“there were some who never passed through them again.”

You may chuckle at that, and shake your head in disbelief. But—if you’ve been around any congregation for a while—you will almost certainly remember incidents akin to that one. Maybe it isn’t about the colour of the church doors. Maybe it’s about the colour of the carpet in the sanctuary. Or what kind of soap dispensers to put in the washrooms. Or who’s in charge of the kitchen. Really. People come to hate one another because of questions like these. And yet, what our Lord requires of us—what Jesus hopes for us—is simply this: that we should love one another as he has loved us.

“I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

The point is this: whenever we stop listening to Jesus—who is the head of our body—we lose touch with the only One who is able to coordinate all of our various parts. Whenever we allow something or someone other than Jesus to guide and direct our actions, we become a body with its head cut off!

And then—forgetting the prime directive of our Lord—we begin to run wildly about, colliding with all manner of distractions and ideologies and agendas, bouncing off one wall after another, until finally … we collapse and die.

Jesus hoped that we would grow together into a family. And not a dysfunctional family, either! N0. He wanted us to—he still wants us to—grow together in love. Praying to his Father in heaven, he expressed his hope for those who—in every time and place—would claim him as Saviour and Lord:

“I ask not only on behalf of these [that is, his original disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).

Those are words to remember on this day, as we prepare to feast at our Lord’s Table. A place is set there for each one of us. All that Jesus asks of us, as we sit down to enjoy this family meal, is that we look to our right and to our left and behold what is actually there: our sisters and our brothers, whom we are called to love.

Jesus calls us to be kin to one another, regardless of our politics or our pride or our personal preferences.

Can we do that? I know it won’t be easy … But I believe we can. And I believe we must … for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

THE UNKNOWN DISCIPLE

18th Sunday After Pentecost ~ Proper 21B

TEXT: Mark 9:38-50

John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38).

“No one else can offer this service!”

“We have the real thing! Everything else is an imitation!”

“Only use our brand of batteries in this product!”

Sound familiar? It’s advertising, of course. Companies love to have the one and only, true-blue, “you can only get it here,” exclusive on the things they sell. And all the more so if the product is really popular.

You might think the church would be free from this kind of boasting. After all, humility and a gentle spirit are highly valued here. Jostling for position or berating the competition hardly seems fitting for people who claim to follow Jesus Christ. But think about it for a moment. Do you ever hear words like these from people in one church or another?

“We’re the real thing! All other churches are false!”

“Christ is only truly present at our Communion table!”

“We worship best here in this place!”

Now think about the gospel lesson for today. It contains a stunning insight into the source of much conflict within the Christian community. Listen again to what John—who was apparently speaking for all the disciples—said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we saw a man casting out demons in your name. But he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to cease and desist.”

Now, I ask you: why would Jesus’ followers want to stop someone from working in his name? Consider that—immediately before John blurts out this report, Jesus has said to them: “Whoever welcomes [a] child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

Got that? Whoever works in Jesus’ name is working for Jesus!

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me …” Jesus says this, and right away John is moved to ‘fess up. It’s as if Jesus’ comment prompted John’s response—as if the disciple had a sudden flash of insight, and realized how far off-base they had been (“Uh-oh! We really blew it with that exorcist dude …”).

We often hear it said that Jesus’ disciples had difficulty understanding him—but maybe this is an example of his meaning becoming crystal-clear. If we can gain insight into what happened here, perhaps we can begin to understand why Christian relationships are so often troubled and strained.

Let’s take a look at the exorcist in this story—the man who was casting out demons. The first thing we know about him is this: he obviously believed in the power of Jesus’ name, and he was doing his work under Jesus’ authority.

The second thing we know about the man is that he was not one of the inner circle of twelve—and, apparently, he was not one of the seventy followers we hear about in chapter 10 of Luke.*  This is a nameless, unknown disciple.

The third thing we know about this anonymous disciple is that he was successful at what he was doing in Jesus’ name. And this might be precisely why the Twelve were so upset.

Let’s look at their motives. Earlier in this ninth chapter of Mark, there is an incident that would have been quite fresh in the disciples’ minds. Jesus had been on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James and John. The other nine disciples remained behind.

When Jesus and the three came down from the mountain, there was a flurry of activity going on with the disciples and a crowd of people. A group of scribes was arguing with the disciples. Here’s how Mark tells the story:

[Jesus] asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so” (9:16-18).

A few verses later, when the crowd is gone and the disciples are alone with Jesus, they ask him about their failure (“Why could we not cast it out?”) and Jesus gives them an answer: “This kind can come out only through prayer” (9:28-29).

Now, it’s difficult enough to be unsuccessful in front of your teacher—but to be unsuccessful when someone who isn’t even “following us” is successful … Well, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Not only that, but it looks like the unknown disciple is more skilled with prayer than they are!

Apparently, when the disciples told the man to stop what he was doing, it was because they thought they had “exclusive rights” to the gospel. In other words, it was a territorial thing—a “copyright issue.” They figured this exorcist was encroaching on their rights.

Not only that, but—just to put their noses further out of joint—it sounds like the disciples were not even successful in guarding their turf! (“We tried to stop him,” John said.) The work of God went on in spite of them.

Now, let’s look at Jesus’ response to the disciples. The first thing he does is enjoin them not to stop this man, and he gives them two reasons—or two insights into those who do the work of God without necessarily being attached to our particular community of faith.

First, he says: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.” In other words, people who are successfully accomplishing the work of the Master in the Master’s name and under his authority are unlikely to turn away from their commitment. Doing the deeds of good news under the power of Christ implies dedication to the Source of good news.

Then, Jesus says: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This needs to be seen in context. Jesus is not giving a general blessing to anything and everything that’s not actively opposing his mission. 

This is not a “live and let live” type of comment. In context, Jesus is saying, “Anyone who is accomplishing the work of God—whether a member of our particular group or not—is in partnership with what we are doing.” I think there are several lessons here which apply directly to us—and to the work of our church. 

Lesson number one: The first allegiance of every Christian—and every Christian community—is to the Lord Jesus Christ. Not to a denomination, or to a particular doctrine, or to a liturgical practice—but, to Christ. Bearing that in mind, the disciples’ words to Jesus show us one way Christian leaders and churches can get sidetracked. “We tried to stop him because he was not following us.”

To be sure, we err when we follow someone other than Christ—even when that person tells us that to follow him is to follow Christ. However, we also err when we assume that all who follow Christ will follow Christ the way we do. The apostle Paul addresses this in First Corinthians when he writes:

… it has been reported to me … that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:11-13).

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life …” (John 14:6).  You may have to unpack this a bit, but most division in the church arises when people have the attitude, “My way is the only way to the Way.”

Lesson number two from our text is, I think, extremely good news for us. The man who was combating evil in the name of Christ was successful in ministry even though he was an “unknown.” He was not one of the twelve, or even one of the seventy—or any other named person in the New Testament. Yet, there he is—following Christ and working for Christ in the power of Christ.

What a great example for you and me! We may not be well-known. We may not be what some would call “pillars of the church.” We may not have published any great theological works. We may not be able to read the original New Testament Greek.

But, in the eyes of Christ, there is no such thing as an insignificant disciple. In spite of the fact that Jesus’ closest followers told the man to stop, his ministry continued.

This is a really important lesson for us: if we are to avoid making serious mistakes in deciding who is and who is not an authentic Christ-follower, we will need to have the “Gamalian” attitude. You remember Gamaliel, don’t you? If you’ve read the Book of Acts, you should remember this guy.

Gamaliel was a Pharisee, and a celebrated scholar of the Mosaic Law. In Acts, chapter five, he was the one who rose up to defend the apostles when the Sanhedrin wanted to kill them. Reminding the court of how many self-proclaimed messiahs had led movements that quickly fell apart, Gamaliel said this:

“… keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39).

According to Acts, Gamaliel’s authority with his contemporaries was so great that they accepted his advice, regardless of how unwelcome it was.

So, to recap: there is more than one way to follow Christ, who is the way; and the proof of discipleship is in the work that is being done. Now, I want to talk about another crucial issue.

Here’s lesson number three: One of the strong themes in the gospel story is the fact of human sinfulness. As uncomfortable as it was for the disciples to have to admit it, the fact was that an unfamiliar disciple was able to do something in the name of Christ that they were unable to do. There’s more than a hint of envy between the lines of our text.

Sometimes, we just plain don’t like it that someone else succeeds where we fail. That’s human nature—or, more correctly, sinful human nature. It takes a good measure of spiritual maturity to be able to recognize this envious streak in ourselves and in our institutions.

Some years ago, I attended a denominational workshop on church growth. At that gathering, much of the discussion revolved around naming what was wrong with fast-growing churches (evangelical churches, in other words); how they were compromising the gospel with too much emphasis on personal faith … and too many guitars and drum sets! To me, most of what was said there seemed to spring from envy or defensiveness, rather than from honest evaluation.

It is through prayer, Jesus told his disciples, that the tough battles of faith are won. Through prayer, our envy and prejudice are exposed. Through prayer, our jealousy can be examined and discarded in favour of zeal for the success of the gospel—no matter who is preaching it, in word or in deed.

Friends, let us rejoice that the power of Christ is able to overcome evil; and let us always support that power—that work—wherever and whenever we see it in action. For none of us has exclusive rights to the gospel!

_____________

* Or—in some manuscripts—“seventy-two” (see Luke 10:1-20)

 

DO YOU SEE THE CHILD?

17th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 20B)

But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. (Mark 9:34)

TEXT: Mark 9:30-37

One of the reasons often given for following the lectionary cycle is that—over the course of three years—it’s supposed to lead us through the entire Bible (or it would, they say, if we used all four readings every Sunday). Except that isn’t exactly true.

Take our gospel lessons as an example. If you’re liturgically-aware, you may know that we’re in the latter part of Year “B” (Year “C” begins on the first Sunday in Advent). And, if you’ve really been paying attention, you may recall that through most of August we were reading from John’s gospel.

But then we broke off—suddenly—after chapter six of John, and plunged into Mark’s gospel, beginning at chapter seven.

Today, we continue reading in Mark, picking things up at verse 30 of the ninth chapter. Yet, we have not read the first 29 verses! And that’s a pity. Because there’s some amazing stuff in that first half of chapter nine.

It begins, in fact, with the Transfiguration account—where Peter, James, and John accompany Jesus to a mountaintop. Once they’ve climbed up there, Jesus begins to radiate a brilliant light, and he has a conversation with Moses and Elijah—both of whom have by this time been dead for centuries!

Then a cloud descends upon the mountain, and God’s voice booms out of it, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (Mark 9:7).

Heady stuff! Peter, James, and John must have been bursting to tell the others about that vision and that voice—but Jesus had strictly ordered them to say nothing about it to anybody.

Think about it, though: if they had been able to report on their mountaintop experience … Well, that surely would have pointed them out as VIPs—the innermost members of Jesus’ “inner circle” … the greatest disciples of all!

But, apparently, that isn’t quite good enough. Because on the way back down from the summit, the three of them begin to argue about … “Who’s number one?”

Which of them is the greatest of the greatest?

However, when they get back to Capernaum, their lofty dreams come crashing down to earth. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asked them (even though, clearly, he already knew). Then he sat down and tried—yet again—to get through to them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Right. They had argued about who was greatest of all … and now Jesus calls them to be last of all. Their eyes must have started to glaze over … just like Sunday morning in church …

They’d heard this spiel before—to save your life, you have to lose it; to be first, you have to be last; to be great, you must become a servant. Jesus was always talking this way.

When you were in high school, was this the way leaders were measured—by being last of all? The last to be noticed? The last to be picked? The last in line? Did the popular kids get popular by always being last? Of course not.

And consider the political arena. We Canadians are nearing the end of a federal election campaign, and Monday is decision day. I ask you: do candidates get ahead by being last? Last in the polls? Last in advertising? Last in debates? That’s laughable.

Professional sports teams don’t win championships by being last. Maggie MacNeil didn’t win gold by treading water.

Clearly, Jesus is describing a totally different way of being and doing than what we mean when we talk about “first” and “last.” All along, Jesus has been teaching his disciples what it means for him to be the Messiah: that he must be rejected, suffer and die—and then rise again. Clearly, the disciples don’t get it.

So he takes a little child in his arms, and brings it into the middle of their circle.

Whose child was this?

Perhaps it was the child of one of the women in Jesus’ community. Perhaps it was the child of one of the disciples, or a relative of Jesus. Whoever the child was, Jesus saw the child. Jesus honoured the child. To Jesus, this small person was as important as Moses and Elijah up on the mountain.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

Earlier that same day—on the Mount of Transfiguration—Peter, James and John had heard the voice from the cloud. They knew exactly who it was that had sent Jesus. Now, juxtaposed with this heavenly vision, they see Jesus, holding this kid on his lap.

Jesus wants them to see the child—and to welcome the child. Not because the child is innocent or perfect or pure or cute or curious or naturally religious. No. Jesus wants them to welcome the child because the child was at the bottom of the heap, socially. It’s worth noting that, in Mark, children are often sick or disabled.

Jairus’s daughter is near death when her father pleads for help.

The Syrophoenician woman’s little girl is possessed by an unclean spirit.

And, just before today’s gospel text, a man brings his son to Jesus. Since childhood, the boy had suffered from terrible convulsions—and Jesus’ disciples had been unable to heal him. But Jesus commanded the spirit to leave the boy, then lifted him to new life.

Children in Mark are not so much symbols of holiness or innocence as they are victims—victims of poverty and disease.

Jesus brings the child from the margins into the very centre. This child is not a symbol, but a person—albeit an insignificant person; one easily overlooked, often unseen and usually unheard. That’s the way it was.

But that was then—and this is now! Surely we are different. We value children, do we not? Especially in church.

Church growth strategies always include children. When surveys ask, “What do people look for in a church?” right up at the top—right after “adequate parking”—is “childcare space that’s cheerful and well-supervised.”

And yet, if we listen to Christian voices in the public square, we may find there is far greater passion about unborn children than about the well-being of children once they are born.

Here’s a quote from Joan Chittister, who is a well-known American author, speaker, and Benedictine nun:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” *

I see her point. Sometimes—perhaps more often than we like to admit—almost the worst thing that can happen to children is getting born. Before birth they are valued and cherished, but … after birth … Well, then they’re on their own!

Jesus, though … Jesus wants us to see the children. He wants us to bring them from the margins and hold them on our laps.

“Do you see this child?”

Jesus is asking us this question, too.

“Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Isn’t it up to us to provide this sort of care? And to offer it—as the Letter of James (3:13) says—“with gentleness born of wisdom.”

Was Jesus being unrealistic that day in Capernaum, when he set a little child in the midst of his disciples? I don’t think so. Today, as in Jesus’ day, it is quite possible to effectively care for the marginalized. To be sure, doing that demands commitment. It requires energy, and time, and money, and—most of all—faith.

Remember that Jesus calls his disciples into action. He said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing …”(John 14:12a).

Consider the works that he did. Jesus swung open the doors of his Kingdom for those whom nobody wanted to see. He extended hospitality to those who were considered nothing more than property. Jesus did not blindly follow social conventions or rules. He healed when he wasn’t supposed to. He touched people he wasn’t supposed to touch. And after a wonderful moment of glory on the mountaintop, he spoke of suffering and death.

Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is not up, but down. All of our arguments about greatness—all of our pretensions of righteousness—mean absolutely nothing if we do not stoop down to see the lowly ones in our midst.

That day in Capernaum, Jesus held a little child in his arms and brought the words of heaven down to earth: “This is God’s Beloved Child.”

Then Jesus looked over the child’s shoulder at his disciples. He’s looking at us, too.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I realize this is not as simple as it sounds. It means caring for children—even if we have none of our own. It means being committed to the welfare of children before and after they are born.

Jesus wants us to care not only for our own children and grandchildren, but also for the children of migrant workers sleeping in the field. He wants us to care for children who arrive in our midst as frightened refugees—and for the Canadian child who, every night, moves from one homeless shelter to another.

In order to do this, we have to do what Jesus did. We have to stoop. We must bend down low enough to see the child of God in every person.

May it be so for us. Praise the Lord who helps us bend!

________________

* https://vimeo.com/214085997

 

ACCEPTING THE CONSEQUENCES

16th Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Mark 8:27-38

“Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).

“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow …” (Matt. 6:28).

“Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1).

Many of the sayings of Jesus have taken on a life of their own in the common speech of people in our society, whether they are Christians or not. You can probably think of lots more:

  • “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29);
  • “do unto others” (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31);
  • “casting pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6);
  • “hiding your light under a bushel” (Matt. 5:15; Mark 4:21);
  • “O ye of little faith” (Matt. 8:26);

Or, how about:

  • “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25);
  • “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13);
  • “don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3);
  • “go the extra mile” (Matt. 5:41);
  • “don’t build your house on shifting sand” (Matt. 7:26);
  • “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15);
  • “those who live by the sword die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

When Jesus spoke, he used vivid images that easily took root in people’s minds and stuck with them. But today, many who use those images have no idea who used them first. And in some cases, these sayings have taken on such a life of their own—separate from their original context—that they are now used to mean something quite different from what they meant when Jesus said them. And that’s dangerous. Because—by reading our modern understanding back into the words of Jesus—we can easily miss the real point of what he was saying.

Today’s gospel lesson contains one classic example:

[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

How often have you heard people speak about “the cross they have to bear”? We hear this said all the time.

However, the idea of “bearing your cross” has taken on a life of its own. You’ll hear people use it to describe any kind of trial: sinus trouble, rebellious children, pimples, a harsh work environment, arthritis, marriage breakdown, unemployment, broken legs, drunken husbands, mortgage payments. The list is endless.

In common parlance, the phrase has come to mean that you have to learn to live with those things that life throws at you that make things harder than they might otherwise be. Keep a stiff upper lip and get on with your life as best you can.

The old Greek word “stoicism” captures the idea quite well. Don’t let these things get you down. Bear up under the load and make the best of things.

Now, there is no question that bad things do happen to good people. And I’m certainly not going to question the wisdom that says you have to learn to live with those things that you can’t change and make the best of life despite them. But if we read that idea into what Jesus is saying in this gospel passage, we will completely miss his point. Jesus might have said those things in another context at another time, but it is certainly not what he’s saying here.

In this context, Jesus is talking about what it means to be his disciple. And so “take up your cross and follow” refers quite specifically to our willingness—or lack thereof—to accept the consequences of following Jesus.

Do you understand what I mean?

Arthritis is not a consequence of following Jesus. I’m not sure what it’s a consequence of—maybe it’s genetics. But, if you’ve got it, you’ll have to live with it as best you can—whether or not you are a follower of Jesus.

Mortgage repayments are not a consequence of following Jesus. They are a consequence of choosing to purchase your own house. If you make that choice, then you will have to bear the burden of paying the mortgage—whether or not you are a follower of Jesus.

Unemployment is not usually a consequence of following Jesus. It is a consequence of living in a society that has more people than jobs. And—unless you live in a society that allows religious discrimination in the workplace—the decision to follow Jesus will not significantly affect your employment future.

These sorts of things are potentially facts of life for everyone—not just for those who choose to follow Jesus. They are the price of being human, not the price of being Christian.

Now, I’m not trying to downplay the impact such things have upon people. I’m merely pointing out that such difficulties and tragedies affect everybody, not just Christians. And—while they are real, and important, and even terrible—they are not what Jesus was talking about here.

As Jesus had just explained to his disciples, taking up his cross literally meant being willing to die for what he believed in. When he arrived in Jerusalem, the religious and national leaders gave him a simple choice: “Back down or we’ll have you killed. Stop rocking the boat!”

Jesus either had to walk away from the things he had being saying and doing, or he had to hold his ground and pay the ultimate price for it. He has just explained all that to his disciples when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In other words, if you choose to take your stand with Jesus, you have to be willing to accept the consequences. You can’t choose to follow Jesus and keep your head down. When Jesus walks out into the open to protest about the way things are, you can either look on from a distance … or you can follow him.

And when Jesus says that if you want to be his follower you have to “deny yourself,” he is saying that you have to hand over the keys. You can’t tag along at a distance and pick and choose about when you are going to be associated with Jesus and when you are not.

Denying yourself means giving up the right to decide when you’ll stand with Jesus and when you won’t. Denying yourself means that every time the way of Jesus comes into conflict with the ways of the world around you, you cannot base your decision upon whatever happens to be in your own best interest. No. You must simply follow Jesus, taking up your cross and accepting the consequences.

If there was any doubt about his meaning, Jesus dispels it at the end of this passage. To paraphrase: “If you’re too embarrassed to be associated with me when my ways are despised or ridiculed by those around you, don’t expect me to welcome you with open arms when it’s convenient for you.”

The principle is similar, actually, to some of those examples I rejected earlier, because some of them are consequences of choices. If you choose not to continue making your mortgage payments, don’t expect the bank to keep recognizing you as the owner of the house. You can’t have the benefits of the arrangement without accepting the costs. It’s a whole package. You make the choice, and then you deal with the consequences—all of them.

Of course, the consequences of following Jesus will not be the same for everyone. In some times and places it has indeed carried the death penalty. Taking up your cross has literally meant signing your own death warrant.

Now—in the foreseeable future, at least—Christianity is not likely to be outlawed in North America. But neither is it likely to become the status quo.

If you choose to follow Jesus, you have to accept a way of life that may put you at odds with most of your neighbours and colleagues. The further you follow Jesus, the more of those consequences you will discover. And each time a new one becomes apparent to you, you will have only two choices: to follow Jesus, or to give up following Jesus completely.

Well, I guess there is a third option. You could just play at being a Christian. But I think that option is really just a disguised version of giving up completely.

But, here’s some good news: Jesus does include the promise of resurrection in this same discussion. Did you notice that? Verse 31 says: “… he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

He will be handed over and killed, but he will rise to life again. If you choose to follow Jesus, that’s the destination. You will rise to life again.

That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Jesus came for. Not only that, but the promise of resurrection contains blessed hope for all those other things which we have blithely—and wrongly—referred to as crosses.

For those who struggle with sickness and pain, there is hope of a day when all will be healed and made whole.

For those struggling with conflict and breakdown and alienation, there is hope of a day of reconciliation and communion.

For those who are exploited or abused or discarded, there is hope of a day of justice when the downtrodden will be lifted up.

These things are not crosses—but Jesus takes them seriously and longs to bring us relief from them. The promise is awesome, for it is nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven.

But the road between here and there is the path of discipleship, and it is only traversed by those who are willing to accept the consequences that lie along the way; in other words, those who are willing to take up their crosses and follow Jesus.

May we always count ourselves within their happy company. May God grant us strength and courage—and, most importantly, faith—to live out our discipleship. Amen.

Ephphatha!

15th Sunday After Pentecost

TEXT: Mark 7:24-37

Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. (Mark 7:31-32)

Many years ago (so many, it seems like another lifetime), when I was trying to make my mark as a journalist, I used to look at the supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer and the Star, and I would think to myself what a blast it would be to work for that kind of newspaper. If there was nothing exciting to report, you could just make something up! Like George W. Bush meeting with space aliens (Remember that? There was even photographic proof). Or Elvis Presley sharing a condominium in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra. Or even Angelina Jolie being a secret cannibal! (I always half-expected Brad Pitt to mysteriously vanish.)

Of course, sometimes the tabloids don’t have to make stuff up. All they have to do is follow certain celebrities around, and they quickly find truth that is much stranger than fiction.

A tabloid journalist would have been the perfect reporter for the events recorded in the second half of today’s gospel lesson. First-century supermarket patrons would be attracted by the banner headline: “I’m cured!” In smaller print, they would read, “Rabbi spits, utters magic word.” There would be a full-color photo of the miracle’s fortunate recipient, with instructions to turn to page two for the full story; gossip, titillation, drama, miracle—this surely fits the tabloid genre.

But there’s a catch. Jesus does not want this story in the tabloids—or anywhere else, for that matter. Mark reports two statements that Jesus made here: “Ephphatha” (“be opened”) and “Don’t tell anybody!” Don’t let anyone know about this.

Actually, if you’ve read the gospels, you’ll know that Jesus often tried to hush up his miracles. There’s a lot of speculation about why he did that, but usually—as in this case—his “gag order” was ignored. Mark reports, “The more he ordered them [to tell no one], the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36). And that’s human nature, isn’t it? There’s something about a secret that makes us want to tell it.

As I said before, there’s been much speculation about why Jesus so often tried to keep news of his miracles from leaking out. One theory that makes some sense to me is that he wanted to avoid sensationalism. He didn’t want people to get stuck on the headline and miss the good news. He wanted them to view each miracle as one more indication that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

Jesus’ ministry was not a magic show. His miracles were not sleight-of-hand carnival tricks. No. They were meant to reveal the gospel of grace. So it must have exasperated him that people so rarely honoured his request for secrecy. It must have irked him to realize that people thought of him as a worker of wonders—a “faith healer”—but ignored the message he wanted to bring them.

Even so, his compassion was stronger than his frustration. In today’s gospel passage, although Jesus wants to avoid publicity that would reveal his power, that does not prevent him from healing the deaf man. Mark says: “They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).

So—off in private, away from the curious public—Jesus touches the man and heals him. Notice that this is no sterile, clinical, medical procedure. It involves touching, spitting, putting his fingers inside the man’s ears, laying his fingers on the man’s tongue. No social distancing involved here!

The story is so carefully preserved that even the Aramaic word Jesus speaks to the man is recorded: Ephphatha, which means, “be opened.” Then he says, “Don’t tell anybody.” But, really, if Jesus had healed one of us, giving that person the gift of words, wouldn’t we want to shout that good news from the rooftops?

Ephphatha. The word is like a cool breeze. It opens the man’s ears. It releases his tongue. It enables him to speak plainly. And on one level, that’s all this story is about—it is the story of one man’s healing. However, on another level, this miracle has a significance that goes far beyond what seems obvious.

Over the past 100 years or so, we have come to better understand that hearing and speaking are two parts of one whole. If you cannot hear, then your ability to speak is profoundly impaired. This is true in a literal, physical sense, but it also has wider implications.

Over my years of ministry, one thing I’ve noticed—and I’ve noticed it everywhere I’ve been—is that, as a rule, mainline Christians speak very little about God. We don’t seem to have much to say about how the Lord has acted in our lives.

I’m sure that most of us would agree that our faith is important to us, that God is very real to us. Some of us might even say that our religion touches every part of our lives. And yet, if we were asked to explain what we mean—to give details or examples—I suspect that most of us would be tongue-tied.

Just like the deaf man in our gospel reading, we seem to have a speech impediment when it comes to talking about God. Even if we cherish our relationship with the Lord, we can find no words to express how we feel. Why is that, I wonder? Could it be that we are deaf to the Spirit’s voice? Deaf, perhaps, because we have not yet learned how to listen for it? Could it be that because we do not listen, we also do not hear? Do not pray? Do not open our hearts to God?

The thing is, we have to make time to listen. We have to be willing to allow Jesus to take us aside in private, away from the crowds and the busy-ness; away from the traffic noise that drowns out his voice.

Something is definitely wrong with the rhythm of our lives when we have no time for quiet contemplation and prayer. Because without that—without a daily discipline of waiting on the Lord and resting in the Lord—we will never learn the language of the Spirit.

We all need to spend time away from the crowds, having our deaf ears opened and our speech impediments removed. And as we learn how to listen, we will hear the gospel being spoken ever more clearly. Its sounds might appear strange at first, even difficult to recognize. Its message to us may not be quite what we imagined. But if we keep listening, our understanding will grow, and—before we know it—we will have our own gospel words to speak.

Make no mistake about it: the gospel is stuttering its way to life among us. When our words fail, Jesus stays with us, breathing a cool breeze between earth and heaven: Ephphatha—“be opened.” Listening for that breath won’t get us into the tabloids, but we may begin to know more fully that the gift of words is part of what Jesus offers when he tells us, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Amen.

A Prayer for Afghanistan

As we all surely realize by now, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Afghanistan. A mass exodus is building as thousands of Afghans rush to flee the country. This week, somehow, a sermon feels irrelevant. So I offer, instead, a prayer.

Holy God, we bring before you the wrongs from which humanity still suffers. Remembering that you are the Creator of the whole human family, we pray for those upon whom are inflicted the cruelties of war: those who are killed, maimed, and made homeless by armed conflict; those who are mistreated by violent men; those who are brutalized by what they are ordered to do; those who are forced to fight against their conscience.

Our hearts ache for all those who are desperately trying to leave Afghanistan; those who are denied their liberty; those who are persecuted for their religious views; those compelled to live and work as slaves; those denied access to education and health care. Hear us, gracious God, as we pray:

  • for Afghans at risk because of their service alongside Allied troops, that they might be quickly and safely evacuated.
  • for the women and children who are specifically targeted by the brutal ideology of the Taliban.
  • for those waiting in Kabul—at entrances and at the airport—that their physical needs will be met, including protection, water, and more.
  • for neighbouring countries, as they attempt to host the surge of refugees leaving Afghanistan.

We pray, as well:

  • that those helping will be able to overcome obstacles as they facilitate the exits and relocations of Afghans.
  • that more pathways will become available to safety and security.
  • that countries around the world will open their borders, and that people will open their hearts to those being displaced from their homes.

And with tears, we pray for those who will not be relocated.

Thank you for standing with us as we work for justice and peace—for it is difficult work. In many cases it seems that we can only have one without the other: peace, at the cost of perpetuating injustice; or justice, at the cost of a broken peace. That dilemma is very much upon our minds on this day, as we ponder the situation devolving in Afghanistan. O God, show all people how they can strive for justice without recourse to the violence of war; and—if a nation must go to war—may it not cause more evil than it seeks to remove.

Encourage all who stand against injustice and oppression: those who protest publicly; those who rouse opinion by their speech and writing; those who bring just concerns to the attention of politicians and others in authority.

O God, speak strong words of courage to the ones who must live out their lives facing challenge as it comes. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.