9-23-12 is Pentecost 17B

Guest Post by Pastor Don Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop Jeremiah 11:18-20- But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter. And I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes, saying, “Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will no longer be remembered!”Psalm 54 – God is my helper; it is the LORD who sustains my life. (Ps. 54:4)

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a- Why do conflicts arise among you?

Mark 9:30-37 – Who is the greatest? Be a servant.

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Richard Rohr

Mindy Roll, campus pastor at Brazos Valley Campus Ministry had a great quote from Richard Rohr on her Facebook page. I swiped it; and it will work its way into this post somehow.

Christianity is a lifestyle-a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is “my personal Lord and Savior.” The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.”

JEREMIAH

I haven’t been spending much time on the first lessons during these posts, but just a brief word about this week’s because it ties into something I find in the Gospel reading.

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“Jeremiah” by Rembrandt

It seems to me that sometime along his journey Jeremiah wondered whether it was worth it. God sent him to speak to a people who seemed to care less. He railed against their dishonesty and their vulgar wealth, their idolatry, and their ill-placed trust, but it had little effect. The only thing that changed was Jeremiah’s frustration with the people and the people’s irritation with him – both of which did nothing but increase!

Jeremiah was mocked, jeered at, thrown in a well and left to die, kidnapped off into Egypt, and finally – as tradition has it – was stoned to death. Many times Jeremiah must have wondered, “Why bother? I need this like a need a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” (Can I get a witness?)

Hang onto that thought…

JAMES

A word about 3:18: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” Based on Borg’s comments from last week, I think it might also be rendered, “And the fruit of justice is sown in peace for those who make for peace.” (Fruit = “karpwn” in verse 17 and “karpos” in verse 18; justice – righteousness – is”dikiaosunhs”.)

But on to the main issue: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

People will have to figure out what that might mean in their personal lives and relationships, but when it comes to congregations my experience has been that conflicts are almost always about vision and mission. However, the twisty part is that the real conflict or dispute is often not identified as such, and so the conflict often appears to be about issues which (IMHO) are often only symptomatic of the deeper disagreement over mission; a disagreement over congregational “raison d’ĂȘtre” – reason for being.

Whether it’s worship wars, building usage, pastoral/staff performance, who can be buried in the graveyard, or __________; the real issue fueling them is often a lack of clarity concerning congregational mission and ministry. Just once I would like to attend an animated and passionate (even heated) congregational meeting where what was being wrestled to the ground was indentifying precisely what God was calling it to do in Jesus’ name in that time and place. Show me a congregation that is clear about its mission and ministry and I will show you a congregation with minimal conflict or problems with financial mission support. Money follows mission. (Again, can I get a witness?)

1169.jpgAnd it seems to me that this process of clarifying mission and ministry must be ongoing. Way back in the day when I was studying ancient philosophy under Reidar Thomte, we came across Heraclitus’ famous quote, “No man steps into the same river twice.” In class I made the offhand quip, “I don’t think that anyone can step into the same river even once because the water is constantly moving.”

I think that the quote and the quip are truer today than ever before. Society, culture, our communities always have been constantly on the move and changing. The difference now is that the stream of life has frequently changed from a lazy river to roaring rapids. Now more than ever, congregations must constantly identify and clarify, in real down to earth terms, the mission and ministry that Jesus calls them to do. As Rohr said, “The world has no time for such [religious] silliness anymore.”

MARK

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” It’s a good thing the Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and not on his way to Huntsville or Angola or we would be wearing pectoral syringes around our necks. If that sounds vulgar, it’s just an attempt to get at the “religious silliness” often foisted upon “take up your cross.”

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Crucifixion was used in Japan.

Crucifixion was often performed to terrorize and dissuade its witnesses from perpetrating particularly heinous crimes. Victims were left on display after death as warnings to others who might attempt dissent. Crucifixion was usually intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”), gruesome, humiliating, and public, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal.


While a crucifixion was an execution, it was also a humiliation, by making the condemned as vulnerable as possible. Although artists have depicted the figure on a cross with a loin cloth or a covering of the genitals, writings by Seneca the Younger suggest that victims were crucified completely nude. When the victim had to urinate or defecate, they had to do so in the open, in view of passers-by, resulting in discomfort and the attraction of insects.

Despite its frequent use by the Romans, the horrors of crucifixion did not escape mention by some of their eminent orators. Cicero for example, described crucifixion as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’, and suggested that ‘the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, and his ears.’”

And so, with all that in mind (because it was in the minds of Mark’s readers or hearers) Jesus asked his disciples what they had been talking about along the way. The disciples were probably more than a little embarrassed because they had been arguing about which one of them had the most authority and respect.

However “being the greatest” is understood by us or was misunderstood by the disciples, this much is clear: the disciples must have thought that being a disciple would produce some tangible reward. That reward might have been thought of in terms of prestige or recognition or status or honor or whatever; but, at least at this point, they felt that there was something in the business of discipleship for them; some reason to bother about the whole business.

1166.jpgTo correct his disciples’ misconceptions Jesus called them together and told them about being last of all and being servant of all. And then, just so they didn’t miss the point (which they missed anyway; Mark’s disciples are dumber than post-holes), Jesus took a child and told them that this was whom they must serve and receive in his name. What was the point?

The point was that children were of little count in the Greco-Roman world. Even in Jewish society, boys had no status until they became “sons of the law” at about age twelve. Girls were of no status until they became married. In short, in a culture of patronage there was nothing to be gained by receiving and serving the child. It wasn’t worth the bother. There was nothing “in it”. That was Jesus’ point. But, it’s hard for us to get it because we live in a culture that revolves around children.

But in other ways the culture in which we live is much like theirs because the question for many people – just like it was with the disciples and just like it was with Jeremiah – is one of, “What’s in it for me/us?” “What’s to be gained by the whole discipleship thing?” “Why bother?”

1165.jpgWhy bother? A while ago I heard a TV preacher say that if you were a Christian, baptized in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit would help you in all things. If you were a doctor it would help you diagnose and treat disease. If you were a financier it would help you plan investments and plumb the mysteries of the stock market. I suppose that if you were a golfer you would also be blessed with a deadly drive and solid putting. But his point was that there were evidently some very concrete and appealing reasons to bother with the whole Christian life!

Why bother? Years ago there was a Time Magazine article entitled “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” In a nutshell, if you bother “hard enough” you will gain wealth and security. I heard another Houston based broadcast preacher say that the only reason people weren’t wealthy is because the devil was “holding them back.”

Why bother? Some people believe that discomfort and disease are signs of unfaith. Others believe that “bothering” will always make you feel good; faith puts a smile on the face and a song in the heart! And still others say that faith will make everything clear and give you the ability to chart a peril free course through waters that are uncertain for all the other poor slobs in the world.

Enough already! You have heard all of these before. There are always these supposedly grand and glorious “things” which will most definitely and assuredly happen if one only “bothers enough to believe” or “bothers to believe enough”. What irritates me is that this “theology of glory” junk is being passed off as “the true faith” to an unsuspecting culture.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (A good video link.) Why serve the child? Why receive the child? Why follow the path of discipleship? It is worth the bother because some things are true.

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Crucifixion of Serbian women during WWI.

The truth is that the child is in need of service – without power and voice and cannot make it on its own. And our world is filled with “children” – people who are of no count, people who have supposedly nothing to offer us by way of association with them. The world too is in need of service; it will not make it on its own. It is in need of disciples who will care for it without care for themselves. That is a good reason to bother.

The truth is that when we serve others in need, when we receive others as people who are deserving of love and care regardless of what they may or may not be able to do for us, we are in fact serving and receiving our Lord.

The truth is that Jesus has first served and received us. In a very deep sense, we need not be concerned about gain because there is really nothing of lasting value that we can gain above what Christ has already given to us.

And finally, I am reminded of a truth that Richard Rohr uttered over and over again when he was a speaker many years ago at our Tri-Synodical Theological Conference. It is one of five hard but freeing truths. It is a “theology of the cross” kind of truth. It is a hard truth for individuals and congregations – and for me.

Why bother? Because the truth is: “Your life is not about you.”

Until next week, be at peace.

Yours in Christ,Don Carlson, Assistant to Bishop Rinehart

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About michaelrinehart

Bishop of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
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