Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Back in 2011, Bill Gates and a number of the other major billionaires like Warren Buffet and Michael Bloomberg made the news by committing to give as much as half their wealth away to philanthropy either during their lifetime or upon the occasion of their death. This made headlines, for one thing, because it marked a remarkable commitment from those among us who have the most wealth to use that wealth responsibly and intentionally to help serve the greater community.
However, it also made the news because of how notably rare this is in our society. According to Forbes Magazine and a study conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the percentage of income that the wealthiest Americans donated to charity dropped by nearly 5% between 2006 and 2012.
That same year, a report released by The Atlantic stated that the wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income while the poorest donate 3.2 percent. The fact of the matter, according to reports like these, is that statistically, year after year after year, the higher we go up in the income bracket, the lower the percentage of income we see given away.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Biblical scribes made similar observations in their communities as well. In fact, the Bible spends more time talking about wealth and inequality than almost anything else. It’s a huge theme for Luke in the Gospel and in the book of Acts. In Luke’s Gospel this morning, Jesus tells the story of a poor man, Lazarus, who is carried away by heavenly angels into the bosom of Abraham and a rich man who is given a one-way ticket on the bullet train to Hades.
It’s important to understand a little bit of context about why Jesus is telling this story. A few verses earlier, Jesus tells his disciples the parable of the dishonest manager, which ends with the phrase, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13). The Pharisees scoffed at this. “The Pharisees,” verses 14 and 15 say, “who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You…justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts…what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”
I’ve never considered myself to be particularly “wealthy” per se, but compared to people living in other parts of the world, I live a very comfortable life. I have a home. I have food to eat. I have access to clean water. Compared to a larger global perspective, I’m a pretty wealthy person, all things considered.
So, the danger here for people like us that I think Jesus is getting at in stories like this is not so much that money is, in and of itself, evil or sinful. However, what things like wealth, privilege, and comfort do have a tendency to do is insulate. The wealthier we are, the more susceptible we are to become insulated from the needs of our neighbor and to feel less personal empathy for those around us who need it the most. That’s why stories of billionaires like Bill Gates giving away half their money are so amazing to us and make the national news. They are the exception rather than the rule.
We get a glimpse of this in Jesus’ story. What I think is so interesting is that even in death, the character of this rich man still imagines that he can order this guy around. He still treats Lazarus like a servant. “These flames are killing me. Send Lazarus to fetch me some water!” In life, the only reason he may have felt like he was able to order someone like him around like that was because of how much money he had or because of his social status. Well, that wealth is gone now. He’s dead. They’re both dead.
And yet, even in death he still can’t bring himself to see this man as his equal. Even after his wealth and social status have both withered to dust, he still can’t bring himself to see Lazarus as anything other than a subordinate. That’s how powerful these psychological processes are. Jesus even takes the parable a step further. When Abraham calls him out on it and actually points this out to him, the rich man repents of the error of his ways and apologizes profusely - and then he immediately does it again!
“Oh, my God, Abraham. You’re so right, but maybe it’s not too late for my brothers to learn from my mistakes. Someone needs to warn them. Can you send Lazarus down to my house and to my house and have him do that for me? Thank you so much. Be sure to tip him well for me.” I don’t think he even realizes that he’s doing it.
I love Abraham’s response. “You don’t need a dead guy to go down there and warn them. For generation after generation after generation, the Bible has been warning you about this stuff. Moses warned you. The prophets warned you. If you haven’t gotten the memo by now, then you probably never will.”
And the man says, “No, no, no! They’ll get the memo! They’ll get the memo! I promise!” Even though he clearly still hasn’t. And he’s talking to a dead guy! Jesus ends the story with these words, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” What an ominous and cautionary tale for all of us. Like the story of Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” the story is a challenge for all of us to break the cycle.
So, how do we go about doing that? During that same article from The Atlantic, Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, made an interesting observation. In a series of controlled experiments, when members of the wealthier group were able to put faces to the names of those who were in need – whether it was by watching a sympathy-eliciting video or (perhaps even better) by meeting and being able to actually get to know people living in poverty, the expressions of empathy and compassion among those within the group began to rise.
We see this happen sometimes when a politician who for a long time has been staunchly anti-gay suddenly discovers that a daughter, or a brother, or a family member is gay, and we see them begin to change their tune. Suddenly, the issue becomes personal. Suddenly, issues like these are no longer intellectual and abstract but intimate and personal, deeply impacting people we know, and love, and care about. It seems to me that if the spiritual illness is isolation and insulation, then Jesus’ spiritual prescription is contact, relationship, and exposure.
It reminded a bit of when the Women’s Gathering group of this church made the decision a few years ago to partner with an organization known as Margaret House a few years back, a ministry for women transitioning out of prison and abusive situations. It was one thing to understand intellectually why doing something like was a good idea, but it was another thing entirely to hear the stories firsthand from the individuals who were directly involved with this ministry. To see their faces, hear their voices, to know their names, and to hear their stories completely changed the conversation. It changed the tone of the conversation. It changed the urgency of the mission. It was a step outside of isolation and insulation and in the direction of contact, relationship, and ultimately action and response.
But a first step is not the end of the journey. It is just the beginning. This weekend, as I was attending a gathering of ministers and clerks within our presbytery to have our session minutes reviewed, our Transitional Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Yost paraphrased a famous quote from John Shedd: “A boat that is only ever tied to the dock may look very nice, but it is not doing what it was made to do. We were made to be sent.” We were made to be people of contact. We were made to be people of relationship with the least of these, and we were made to be people of faithful discipleship in grateful response.
This year as we make our way into the fall, I would encourage our session, I would encourage our committees, and I would encourage all of us to imagine even more radical ways that we can step outside of our comfort zones and into direct contact and relationship with those who are privileged differently from us.
This is our mission because the company of our Lord Jesus Christ is in the company of the stranger. These relationships may push us and even challenge us, but they may also create space where we might learn and grow. The warning of Jesus’ parable, I fear, is that a spirituality that is unwilling, unable, and refuses to sit at table with the least of these and to see their humanity as equal children of God may be no better off than that of a rich man crying out in Hades. However, if we devote ourselves and commit ourselves to the company of the stranger, the foreigner, the poorest of the poor, and the least of these like Lazarus then the direction of our lives may very well be pointed in the direction of the bosom of Abraham, indeed.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it;”
Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.”
Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.
In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
During the last semester of my senior year of college, most of the students in my media production major applied for an internship program that our college offered in Los Angeles. Using their alumni network, many rising graduates were plugged into internships in L.A. to help get their foot in the door once they got their diploma. One friend of mine spent his last semester in college as Sam Raimi’s projectionist while he was editing Spider-Man 3. Another delivered coffee for Will Smith’s office. You get the idea.
Whether these internships led to fame and fortune or not, they provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and most students took full advantage of it except for the rare weirdo who would opt to walk away from all of that and enter into something like the seminary instead…but that’s another story.
During this time, I had a guidance counselor in the midst of this process who used to tell kind of a corny joke. “Well, if you’re going to move, just be sure to rent, don’t buy!” This was a reference to the fact that California lies along the San Andreas Fault, which makes cities like L.A. particularly prone to earthquakes, and any moment could be “the Big One:” a devastating hypothetical 8.0 or greater on the Richter scale. Houses everywhere would collapse. Food, water, and electricity could be cut off. California, itself, would break apart from the rest of the United States and sink into the Pacific Ocean forever.
Or, at least, that’s what my guidance counselor seemed to think. It was a corny joke, but if my guidance counselor thought buying a house in California was a bad idea, Jeremiah’s scheme in this morning’s Scripture passage would have struck her as completely loony tunes.
The Scripture passage begins with the following words: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar.” I’ll be honest with you. I have a tendency to want to skip over chronological gobbledygook like this in the Bible. Maybe it’s that attention deficit thing I’ve go. However, I noticed something in that gobbledygook this week.
The eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar puts this story at right around 588 B.C.E. Now, if you’re a history buff, that year ought to make the lights on your dashboard start blinking because that is one year before the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem for the second time in 587. Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Temple, believed to be the very dwelling place of God, was utterly annihilated. Children had been slaughtered. The king had been blinded. This is an enormous crisis of faith because 587 B.C. is the year that Israel began to wonder if they were still God’s chosen people or if God had abandoned them.
Jeremiah has spent the first half of this book warning them that this would happen. Chastising Israel and radically calling attention to things that they don’t want to hear. His own king even tried to intimidate him, put him under house arrest, and tried to shut him up. “Why are you doing this?” Zedekiah asks, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it?” Why don’t you just zip it?
Because Jeremiah’s words are painful, and kings generally don’t like being given painful news. Kings often surround themselves with Yes Men who stroke their egos and tell them exactly what they want to hear instead. We don’t like hearing the news if it hurts. We don’t like hearing the news when it’s painful, but there is a difference between painful and hopeless. Anyone who has ever been an athlete or anyone who has ever gone through rehab after a particularly extensive surgery knows that the pain does not have the final word.
Jeremiah does not believe that this tragedy has the last word either. After spending half of a book of the Bible lecturing to the king and to everybody else about how this will only end badly for them, Jeremiah then tells the king that God has also given him some instructions: “It’s time to buy some land!”
Buy land?! The whole country is falling apart. Why on earth would you want to buy land now? Because Jeremiah is thinking long-term. Or more specifically, God is thinking long-term. Really long-term. Eternally long-term. While the future may hold tragedy for Jeremiah and his country, it is not the only future. It is not God’s ultimate future.
In the bigger picture, God is still holding all the cards. The real future is that one day when even the greatest kings and fiercest politicians have faded into history, when even the strongest of nations is no more, that when even the greatest of empires has withered to dust, the truth of God will still remain. The future that Jeremiah is investing in is a future that promises that the grass withers, and the flower fades, the Word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8).
I love that just because Jeremiah believes in that future, that doesn’t mean that he just waits around for it to show up one day. He actively, visibly instigates it. He makes two copies of the deed: a visible copy that can be looked at for reference in the immediate future and a closed copy “put…in an earthenware jar,” as he says, “…that they may last for a long time.”
The only reason that anyone would do this would be so that future generations can preserve and maintain it, which means that even in the midst of all of this chaos, Jeremiah is still publicly banking on the idea that there are going to be future generations in the first place. Frank M. Yamada, Director of the Center for Asian American Ministries at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago writes:
“Today's passage reminds us God is invested in the future destiny of humankind. Even when catastrophe was imminent, Jeremiah made an audacious…act, symbolizing God's declaration that judgment and destruction would not have the final word…God's people would be restored and would again thrive in the land…[Through a symbolic act,] the prophet…activates the future in the present...”
It makes me wonder what it looks like to activate the future in the present in neighborhoods like ours. This week, my friend, Nate, and his family are moving out of their home that they have lived in for over a decade to move into a poorer neighborhood in South Atlanta.
As we were talking about this weekend, Nate shared with me that when some members of his family saw the neighborhood that they are choosing to move into, they would ask why they were moving into what they described as “the ghetto?” Nate’s response to me was because he and his family believe it is important to invest in the community, just like Seville invests in its community. “Regardless of what others see in it,” he said, “it is the church's job to invest in the things that others see no reason to.”
It made me remember another story that many of you have heard me tell before of a pastor who had been called to do ministry in the inner city. “Over the…last five to six years of the work that I’m doing,” he said, “my home has been shot into twice...”
One morning, he and his wife awoke to discover that one of the bullets had been fired through the window within twelve inches of his son’s head where he had been sleeping. That morning, he said, “Sweetheart, it’s your call. If you say we’re outta here, we pack up today. What do you think we should do?” His wife turned to him and said, “I believe that God has called us to this place to do this thing for this season.”
“We had a very deep sense as we prayed together that God had called us…because even though we may never see this community fully turn around in our lifetime, we have a promise, and we have a decision to make…through the work that God is doing through this ministry, a people can come into existence…that is why we do it…the hope that even in a neighborhood as desolated as this, God’s people can come into existence.”
I believe Jeremiah shared that same hope that even in a moment of history as desolate as his own, God’s people could come into existence. When Jeremiah decides to double down and invest in that land even when it seems crazy to everybody else, he activates the future. When Nate and his family move intentionally into a neighborhood where they believe they can help make a difference, they activate the future. And when that family chose to stay even in a neighborhood as dangerous as that because they believed in a future that belonged to God, they activate the future.
“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” I think it’s really interesting that Jeremiah that uses language like plants and vineyards. It reminds me of an old Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old [men and women] plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” What trees will we plant here at Seville Presbyterian Church? What earthenware jars will we create for future generations to come? What future will you activate today?
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Ever since I started serving as your pastor, Linda Wagner has always had one thing to say to me. Linda has been begging me for years now to incorporate the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” into a sermon. Now, I don’t normally take requests like that. However, Linda, today is your lucky day. Monty Python, for those of you who don’t know, is a British comedy troupe, and their film, “The Holy Grail” is a satire. A ridiculous send-up of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table filled with quotable lines and memorable scenes.
One of my favorite moments in the movie comes at the very beginning when Arthur and his knights are given their mission from God to find the Holy Grail in a form of a cheaply animated cartoon figure up in the clouds. “Arthur,” God says, “King of the Britons, your Knights of the Round Table shall have a task to make them an example in these times.”
Arthur says, “Good idea, O Lord!” to which God responds, “Of course it’s a good idea!” The reason why this line is so funny is because it plays with ways that many of us have been taught to think about God. Of course it’s a good idea! It’s God. Why wouldn’t it be? God is perfect, immutable, and unchanging.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the idea that God came up with was actually frightening or disturbing? Last Sunday, many of you may remember that the lectionary has been doubling down pretty hard over the last several weeks on the theme of idolatry, and this Sunday is no exception. The story of the golden calf may be one of the most well-known stories about idolatry in all of Scripture. God has brought the Israelites out of slavery from the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt. God has saved them from the Pharaoh’s army and has been feeding them and sustaining them with manna and with quail in the desert.
But even though God’s followers have been liberated and given food, they are anxious! They don’t know how much longer they’re going to have to keep wandering in the desert, and one of the most central flaws in our human condition is our capacity to allow uncertainty to breed anxiety. So, they make an idol, which as many of us know, is the number two thing on God’s top ten list of things you don’t do! No gods before me, and no idols! (Exodus 20:1-4)
God is livid! God is fed up. God is tired of the nonsense and the shenanigans. He is on the warpath and says, “Moses, I am going to destroy these people. I’m going to wipe them out, and you and I are going to go to presbytery and start a new congregation together. We will build a great nation just you and me, Moses. What do you say?”
This is the moment where Moses could have very well said, “Good idea, Lord!” and that could have been the end of the story. We would have had a very different Old Testament if that had happened. But Moses doesn’t say that because deep down in Moses’ heart, he knows that this isn’t a good idea. The future of the Old Testament, the future of the covenant, perhaps the future of an entire faith tradition rests on how Moses is going to respond to the Commander in Chief.
In one of the most extraordinary moments in all of Scripture, Moses says, “Stop!” Moses reminds God of what’s important. “God, these are your people. Your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt. You have saved and delivered these people.”
And then Moses hits God where it really hurts. Moses goes for the jugular and says, “Do you really want Pharaoh to hear about this? After all that humiliation, after all those plagues, after going to all that trouble to free these people and to show Pharaoh who’s boss, do you really want him to find out that this all fell apart out here in the desert? That this whole thing turned out to be much for you to handle, and you wound up killing them all in the end?” Moses says, “Remember your covenant.”
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants…you swore to them by your own self….’
Incredibly, Moses looks directly into the heart of God and the Lord changed his mind. Moses causes the heart of God to change. “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
I’m not going to lie. The idea that God could go back and forth about something this serious or that God could be influenced by a human being rather than the other way around terrifies me. On the list of theological discussions or questions that would keep me up at night or that I would much rather avoid, this is right up there near the top of the list for me.
However, this week, Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, said something about this text that I thought was very interesting by pointing out that in a way, “God both changes and doesn’t change.” God made a covenant with Abraham and with Isaac, and in this moment God is tempted with the possibility of breaking that covenant. But then God remembers what that covenant means. God remembers why it was so important, and in the end, ultimately, God decides not to change.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the image of Jesus this week in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, himself, considers the possibility of having the cup taken away from him. Jesus considers the possibility of bailing on this new covenant – of bailing on this whole thing - and not unlike the book of Exodus, there’s a lot riding on it. Jesus experiences this temptation in the fullest way that a human being can, and yet ultimately Jesus decides not to change. Jesus decides to go through with it.
I’ve always been oddly comforted by the idea that even Jesus could understand and experience temptation. It reminds that Jesus was human. That Jesus has been where we have been and has known what we have known. As I thought about this some more this week, there was something oddly comforting about the idea that even before Jesus, God has been there, too. God understands what it means to be human. To feel pain, to feel anger, to mourn, to grieve, and to cry out. But even still, even in that moment, God does not break God’s covenant. Even then, God does not abandon us.
Part of what gives a covenant its value is the fact that a covenant is a choice. It is an arrangement or relationship where all parties involved are mutually at risk and in some way vulnerable to the choices of the others participating in that covenant. The witness of our faith is that God has chosen to keep God’s covenant with us even when we are not able to keep that covenant, ourselves.
And so as people made in the image of God who has known the fullness of what it means to be, we are also called to live in covenant with one another. We may be a small church here at Seville, but we are a family church. Like any family, there are times when we get along with one another harmoniously, and like any family, there are times when we really get on each other’s nerves. Yet time and time again, we see this congregation family stick together, hold each other up, support each other, and love one another fiercely even during challenging times - through good times and bad.
A friend of mine recently told me that for her, marriage is the first image that comes to her mind when she thinks of a covenant. She said, “If you talk to someone who has been married for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, you hear is that each of the people in the relationship has changed, and so the marriage has to change in order to keep the covenant. It’s a choice to stay married, to stay in that relationship, to stay in the covenant, and it’s not always easy. It’s hard work.”
Can you remember a time when someone hung in there with you when it wasn’t easy? When you needed them the most? In the seasons of your life when you might have been a difficult person to be in relationship with? I can. That describes most of my twenties! Maybe that person is sitting right here in this room this morning. When we do this, we reaffirm that we are covenant people made in the image of God.
A few weeks ago, during a recent Christian Ed meeting, one of our mothers shared with us that she had recently asked her daughter if she would ever want to try a different church. Maybe a church that had larger facilities, bigger programs, or less drama. She told us that her daughter’s response was, “No, Mom, I couldn’t see myself going anywhere else. This is my church. This is my family.” And then she said, “These are my people.”
Friends, the truth of the matter is that we are God’s people, and God’s covenant will last forever. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?
Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Many of you have heard me tell this story from the pulpit before. When I was a teenager, I took acting lessons at the Sumter Little Theater. Our acting classes were taught by a woman named Katie. Katie was raised in the mountains of Kentucky and moved to my small, southern hometown of Sumter, South Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. My mother once told me that Katie’s family became one of the first to let white children and black children play together in the same backyard when her kids were growing up.
When the neighbors found out, it became the local scandal. My mom told me that she could remember overhearing conversations like, “Well, you know the kind of neighborhood she lives in, don’t you? It’s not exactly the wrong side of town, but it’s close enough. I wouldn’t leave my children alone in that house.”
When other young mothers would offer to bring their children over for play dates, their own mothers would be horrified. “You can’t let your children play there! With those kids? In that neighborhood?!”
At one point, my mom had a similar conversation with her own mother. “Mother, the times are changing. We can’t just keep teaching our children to live in fear just because of the color of someone’s skin.”
And her reply was, “I’m your mother. Those are my grandchildren. I will not allow you to put them at risk!” I asked my mom recently what it was exactly about the area that made all of these parents feel so worried. Mom rolled her eyes and said, “Marc, it had nothing to do with the area. None of this had anything to do with being on the wrong side of town. It was because they were black.” I’ve asked my mom before why she felt conversations like these with her mother were so important, one of the responses I have heard her say is “I just didn’t think it was very Christian.”
This story was a long time ago, but stories like these are not unfamiliar to us because the truth of the matter is that we all have stories like these in our own families even today. What do we do when the values of our family or our friends, come into conflict with what we believe to be the values of our faith? What do we do?
Unfortunately, that is exactly the question that passages like these force us onto the table. It’s also an ancient question. In the first century, in Jewish culture, the family was absolutely central. If someone in your family were to pursue interests that detracted from family responsibilities, there were real consequences. Families were patriarchal. If you were a wife or a child, you were a second-class citizen. If a patriarch was no longer present with the family or died, many women and children were moved to the outskirts of society and abandoned by their community. This probably explains why so many of Jesus’ followers were reported to have been single. Or women. Or both.
Likewise, many family members shared the same family occupation. If your father was a carpenter for example, you were probably going to be a carpenter, too, and carry on the family business. However, if one of you suddenly decided to uproot and follow someone who strolled into town saying things like “I will make you fish for people,” that could threaten the family business and throw your primary source of income into jeopardy. What does that discussion at the dinner table look like, I wonder?
This passage comes at a very interesting moment in Jesus’ ministry. For five chapters now, Jesus has been making his way towards Jerusalem and is actively moving towards the cross. Towards what he knows will be his own death. Verse twenty-five tells us that at this point, Jesus’ preaching has been drawing massive crowds.
But Jesus is concerned. These people hear all these wonderful things about the kingdom and blessing, so of course they want to follow someone who offers things like that, but Jesus seems a little worried that they’re not quite getting it. They’re not quite hearing what he’s saying. They don’t seem to full grasp, to fully appreciate the cost of what he’s talking about.
So, finally, Jesus decides that he’s had enough. He’s not messing around anymore. It’s time to decide who’s really in and who’s just hanging out. He turns and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
While most churches would be popping open the champagne bottles at the thought of attracting these kinds of numbers, Jesus appears to be thinning the herd. He is moving towards his own death, and if following him means following even into the shadow of the cross, he wants people who mean it.
Now, a lot of preachers and commentators try to explain this passage away a little bit by saying that “Jesus probably didn’t really mean it. He’s using hyperbole. He’s exaggerating. He’s using shocking and provocative language to grab their attention. It’s a wake up call.”
That may be true, but I also think there’s more. The Greek word here in Luke is “miseo.” Luke is writing in Greek. Jesus is speaking in Aramaic, and that word likely comes a Hebrew idiom found a few times in the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy, for example, the Hebrew word for “hate” is often used in family systems. It was used to describe who among the kids was going to be chosen to receive the lesser inheritance. The word was sort of euphemism that was less about extreme negative feelings and more about favor, loyalty, and blessing.
Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate…even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, I seriously doubt that someone who spent so much of his ministry giving and restoring life to those who around him who had less of it as much as Jesus did “hated life itself” the way we understand that thought today. However, in the same way that a parent back in the Old Testament might choose which child would receive the greater inheritance, Jesus is also about to make a choice, himself, between faithfulness to God and the preservation of even his own life, itself. Where will his favor, loyalty, and allegiance ultimately lie in the end?
Jesus is also turning to the people who are following him and saying, “You might have to make choices like that, too. There is a cost to this life. There may be a cost to your family. There may be a cost to your feelings of allegiance to Caesar. You may even find yourself crucified.” And, indeed, one day many of them will be.
“This is the deal,” Jesus says, “You can take it or leave it, but I’m not going to sugar coat it. I’m not going to soften it up, and I’m not going to lie to you. This is the way it is. Now, look. You wouldn’t build a tower without first knowing what it would cost to build it. You wouldn’t go to war if you didn’t think you had enough soldiers. And if this sort of thing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you should probably think carefully about following me.”
As I’ve been reading the lectionary over the last several weeks, I have noticed that this theme of what it costs to follow God has been coming up over and over again. The lectionary has been doubling down pretty hard over the last month or so on the questions of what is following God and what is following something else – or to put it another way, what is idolatry and what is not.
For the Jews living in Jesus’ day, the cost of following Jesus was real and had a real impact on their lives. When my mother says, “I just didn’t think it was very Christian,” she is remembering difficult conversations with her own mother, she is reminded that the cost of following Jesus was very real for her and her family, too. However, if my mom had silently decided that keeping her mother happy was more important than the justice for these kids for the sake of the Gospel, that would have been a form of idolatry.
If our political parties espouse values that subvert and undermine the Gospel, but we choose turn and look the other way anyway, deciding that their well-being is more important, that is a form of idolatry. If we espouse values such as “putting the Christ back in Christmas,” but when the rubber hits the road, we actually find ourselves spending more money on materialism and consumerism than feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and the notion of reversing the two would seem unthinkable, then guess what? That is a form of idolatry.
Even if Jesus’ words about our families and our possessions are exaggerated speech meant to shock us, to wake us up, and grab our attention rather than literal commands to go run out and go sell the house, the fact that these forces in our lives have so much power over us should still give us pause. Maybe that’s worth being shocked over. Maybe that’s worth being woken up to, and maybe that’s worth our attention.
The bad news is that in the light of this text and others like it, all of us are guilty here. You and me both. None of us can say that we have lived up to the standard of Jesus. The Good News, however, is that Jesus already has. When the burden of following Jesus even into the shadow of the cross has been too much for us, the shadow has not proven to be too much for him. Jesus did abandon family, possessions, safety, and even life itself on the cross for the sake of faithfulness, and the Easter promise is that Jesus has overcome the shadow. And even still, Jesus embraces us. Jesus claims us. And even still, Jesus extends the invitation to follow him.
So, the question, friends, is “Where does that leave us?” Will we allow ourselves to be changed by this man from Nazareth? Will we allow his words to shock us, to wake us up, and even threaten to change us? Can we be brave enough to admit and own up to the idols that we have in our own lives? Not for the purposes of feeling guilty or feeling awful about ourselves, but for the purposes of being honest? Of being real? And maybe for the purposes of even taking some first steps to change some of that? If we are, if we can do that then I believe that we really are well on our way. I believe those really are the kinds of people Jesus called to follow him down that road, and if we can be open to that and transformed by that, then I believe that really is Good News.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
One year for Christmas when I was about five years old, my parents decided to go all-out. By Christmas Eve that year, the floor of our living room was covered with presents. Wall-to-wall. The way my dad described it, between the presents that they had gotten us and the presents that Santa Claus would be leaving that night, you could not have fit anything else into our living room even if you wanted to. It was literally overflowing with Christmas presents. On Christmas morning, as my two-year-old sister and I set our eyes on the spectacle, and both of my parents nursed a cup of coffee, I turned to my Dad and shrugged, saying, “I thought there would be more.”
Now, I have no memory of saying that when I was five, but my parents do, and they made sure that I would, too, because they told everybody. Friends, relatives, high school girlfriends. They even told our pastor growing up, and he loved the story so much he even used it as his sermon illustration on Christmas Eve one year when I was home from college. As long as I live, that is one story that I will never forget. It stays with me, but it also stays with me because it reminds me of our human capacity to be surrounded by abundance and somehow only see scarcity. To tell ourselves, “I thought there would be more.”
I was reminded of this human capacity again a few years ago at a Presbyterian conference I attended in Minneapolis. Over a thousand pastors and elders gathered together for worship in one of the most beautiful sanctuaries I had ever seen. I was almost moved to tears by the sound of this community of pastors and elders singing the doxology together when I overheard another pastor give a deep sigh after we sat down and mutter under his breath, “It isn’t the same as what it used to be.”
While we had both sat through the same service together, our experiences couldn’t have been more different. For me, the worship that had been prepared was nothing short of abundance overflowing. But for him...he seemed to think that there would be more.
There’s an expression for this human phenomenon. Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher, mathematician, and physicist described what would later come to be referred to as “the God shaped hole” or “the God shaped vacuum.” Each of us has experienced it at some point or another. The feeling that even though we seem to be surrounded by everything we could possibly need, something in the back of our mind still doesn’t feel quite right. Something feels incomplete. Something feels empty. The nagging sense that somehow we thought there would be something more.
In 1670, Pascal wrote:
“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
As Westerners living in a consumerist culture, it doesn’t help that we are often taught to think and feel this way: that if we just made a little more money, if we just had a few more material things, if we just had the latest trend, or even just a few more seats in the pews were filled, we would finally be happy. We would finally be satisfied, and everything would finally be perfect.
But deep down, we know the truth. I think it’s very interesting that the prophet Jeremiah uses the image of a cracked cistern as his central metaphor in this morning’s Scripture passage.
“Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord…they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
For those of you were not familiar with the term, a cistern is a waterproof receptacle or a basin used to catch and collect rainwater. This morning’s passage likely originated somewhere in the neighborhood of 626 B.C.E. During Israel’s Iron Age, technology and innovation were at an all-time high, and one of those innovations was the creation of this water basin.
Droughts were a very real and common threat back in antiquity. The story of God leading Moses and the Israelites out of Egypt and providing water in the desert was still fresh in the psyche of the local faith community, and when drought did strike, it could be disastrous. So, when the aqueduct was invented, many believed that they had solved the problem.
So, the idea that they could be damaged or cracked would be disastrous. It could spell certain doom for a community who depended on them to have clean, drinkable water in their day-to-day lives. But there was also another threat that Jeremiah observed that was just as real. This threat, however, was spiritual. While the invention of the cistern was an achievement, one could argue that it also led to self-congratulation, arrogance, and spiritual complacency.
In a way, the image of a cistern and water becomes a symbol and a metaphor for both something physical and something spiritual. It reminds me of the story of the woman that Jesus meets in John 4 who spends her days carrying water to and from a well to whom Jesus offers living water. The image of living water is both physical as well as spiritual.
Several centuries earlier, Jeremiah uses that same image. When the Israelites started to feel that ancient itch, themselves, they turned to false idols such as the god Baal. In verse 8 when Jeremiah says, “The prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.”
The Hebrew here is ya’al, which is a sort of play on words on the name, Baall. This is funny to me because I come from the South where words like “ya’all” mean something else entirely. But here in Hebrew it literally means “profit” or in this case, things that “do not profit.” In other words, “Ba’all is no ya’all,” and turning to things like idolatry will bring nothing good.
At its heart, Jeremiah’s language and metaphor is all about idolatry. One of my favorite Biblical scholars, Anathea Portier-Young, who is the Associate Professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, points out that the tricky thing about idolatry is that we often don’t realize that we’re doing it. I suspect that most five-year-olds don’t wake up on Christmas morning and think, “I’d like to commit idolatry and worship having lots of toys rather than focusing on what Christmas is really about this morning.”
When I sat in that pew next to the man who could only see scarcity in a sanctuary filled with singing, I suspect that he did not walk into that church consciously intending to make an idol of his memories of the past that hindered one from being prayerfully and gratefully present in a chorus of voices singing the doxology.
“When we’re doing it,” Professor Portier-Young writes, “it doesn’t seem like we’re worshipping a false god. It seems like we’re worshipping a true god. Or it seems like we are pursuing good ends, ordained by our true god. It seems like we are pursuing the something necessary for our survival, and if we believe that our true god desires our survival, then surely the thing we pursue is not idolatrous. Even if it feels empty and dry. Even if it really is draining us of life and soul.”
Jeremiah does not mince words about this. “I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination…Therefore…I accuse you…and I accuse your children’s children.” His words are indicting. Even harsh. But to Jeremiah and the God of this Scripture, idolatry is a very serious issue. In the same way that a cracked cistern creates very real and serious problems for a community, idolatry and spiritual complacency create spiritual decay that is just as real and just as serious.
Texts like these challenge us to ask ourselves, “What is the difference between a community that faithfully pursues our mission that is centered on God rather than simply ‘going through the motions?’” I suspect that most realistic churches like ours would probably find a little bit of both in our lives if we are honest with ourselves, and being able to recognize them and tell the difference is an important part of growing and deepening as communities of faith.
One of the reasons why I am grateful for our church polity is precisely because it is as democratic as it is. Our Book of Order encourages precisely these kinds of dialogues and conversations. It would be nearly impossible for any one person left alone in isolation to reliably assess what is healthy and what is not – what is faithful and what is not – all the time. That’s why we need each other. That is why we need community. Our Presbyterian polity calls us together into that community with one another not to discern not what is popular but to listen together for the will of the Holy Spirit. Every member of the Body has an insight and a point of view that is important and unique, which is why it is so important that every member of the Body has a voice.
My friend and colleague, Rob Jackson, who some of you may remember preached at my installation service told me that when his session thinks about questions such as these, one of the questions he asks is “Can we make a Biblical case for our mission? How is our mission grounded in Scripture? And can we articulate that?” I think especially when we’re talking about idolatry, questions like these are an important place to start.
As we prepare to kick off our fall year, I encourage all of us to ask the question, “What is our mission here at Seville Presbyterian Church, and how is it grounded in Scripture? Who are the people that God has called us to serve, and why? What serves us as we move into the future, and what is God calling us to leave behind?” I would challenge our session to wrestle with these questions, and I would encourage each of us to pray for them and dialogue with them about it together.
The water that God offers is the water of life. Many of the promises and narratives of this world fail to fill the God-shaped hole, but the promise of God’s water of life is that whoever drinks of it will never be thirsty. May our church be a cistern whose foundation is fitting to receive such a gift, that it may be extended generously through what God is doing through us to all who thirst.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
It is good to be back with all of you this morning. I want to especially thank Dave Osterland, the Rev. Charles Cureton, and Karol Niehaus from Dalton Presbyterian Church for filling the pulpit over the last three Sundays. The last three weeks have been particularly rich for me, filled with opportunities to serve the greater Church as the director of the Jeremiah Project at the Montreat Youth Conference, to study, reflect, and prepare my preaching calendar for the 2016 / 2017 year, and to rest, restore, and spend time with my family in South Carolina. I am very grateful to our session and to all of you for the gift of this time. You have all been in my thoughts over the past few weeks, and I am eager to be back with you as we prepare to kick off the fall year together.
I’ve been thinking a good bit about the role of Sabbath over the past few weeks and what role it plays in our lives as people of faith. During my visit with my parents, my mom told me a story about how when she was a little girl, she liked to go to the movies with her friends on Sunday afternoons. Her dad (my grandfather) had grown up in a Baptist church, and back then doing thing like going to the movies was frowned on Sundays. He did let my mom go to the movies with her friends, but I can’t help but wonder he wrestled with what he had been taught growing up about what the Sabbath really means.
It’s the very question that the text in this morning’s Scripture passage wrestles with. The text tells the story of a Pharisee who sees Jesus doing something that goes against what he, as a Pharisee, had been taught about what the Sabbath means. Listen now for the Word of the Lord as we turn now to the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s record of the Gospel.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
This past weekend, I had a conversation with my friend, Carrie, from college about this story of a woman who is crippled and healed by Jesus and the scandal that it causes by happening on the Sabbath. Carrie grew up in a Jewish family, and as we talked about the story, the Pharisee’s reaction confused her at first. “I thought working on the Sabbath back in Bible times was okay,” she said, “as long as someone’s life was at stake.”
Carrie was very impressed that her memory of Jewish trivia from eighth grade Talmud class served her well. So was I, and she’s not exactly wrong, but there’s a problem. The ailment that this woman suffers from (a bent back), while painful and debilitating, is not exactly life-threatening. Also, while not much information is given to us about this woman’s family of origin, this provision was set aside exclusively for Jews and not Gentiles.
“Ah, yes,” Carrie said, “well in that case, color me scandalized.”
Jesus calls the Pharisees out as hypocrites. “If your livestock were dying of thirst, would you refuse to give them water if it was still the Sabbath?!” Jesus asks. If we were to read a little bit further to the very next chapter, Jesus will take the argument a step further in verse 5: “If your own child fell into a well on the Sabbath, would you just leave them there?!” This is followed in verse 6 by one of my favorite lines in all of Scripture: “They could not reply to this” (which is Bible code for “That shut them up”).
But there’s a lot more going on here than clever quips or snarky comebacks. Jesus is challenging the religious leaders (and by extension, challenging us) to take a closer look at what the Sabbath means and why it is set apart in the first place. Most people know that the book of Exodus connects the Sabbath to the six days of creation in Genesis. However, in the next chapter of Luke, Jesus will quote Deuteronomy 5 (the passage that Laura read just a few moments ago) back to the Pharisees reminding them that the Sabbath is also connected directly to the Israelites’ liberation out of Egypt:
“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (5:12-15)
In his lecture tour, “Everything Is Spiritual,” author Rob Bell says:
“In Egypt, your worth and value came from meeting your quota of bricks. You were worth as much as you produced. This was life in Egypt. God rescues these people from life in Egypt, and now he’s trying to teach these people what it means to be a human being, not a human doing. God is trying to teach these people what it means to be human. You are not a machine…your worth does not come from what you produce. Your value does not come from bricks. Your value comes because you are rescued and redeemed children of the one true God.”
When Jesus quotes Deuteronomy back to the Pharisees, he reminds them that God rescued the Israelites from this way of thinking and this way of living – that Sabbath is first and foremost an act of rebellion (6:5).
It’s very easy for preachers to paint the Pharisees as these sort of mustache-twirling villains in stories like these, but I’m not sure the Pharisee is actually trying to be a jerk here. In fact, I’m not sure he’s even aware of what he’s doing. From his point of view, he was just following the rules like any other good Jewish boy. Would it have really killed Jesus to have showed up and helped out on Monday? Or Tuesday instead?
The problem though, is that this is not really the point. The point that Jesus makes is that the Sabbath – which was originally intended to be about liberation and giving life to everyone has become inadvertently become co-opted and has resulted in giving life to some people at the expense of others. That’s not okay. I suspect that Jesus knows good and well the scandal that his actions will cause in this community, but the issue needs to be illuminated. This woman’s life has become a visible and tangible sign of why the Sabbath is really set aside in the first place: for liberation and being set free (in her case, from her affliction).
During my time at the Montreat Youth Conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with a friend of mine who leads workshops with middle schoolers. The point of these workshops is to help young people look at our own capacity for participating in systems of oppression without being aware that we are doing so. “Once we’re aware,” he said, “we have conscious choices to make, but a lot of the time, we’re not even aware.”
During one such workshop, he found himself talking to the group about one of the stories of Rosa Parks who, as many of you know, was arrested during the 1950’s for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger under segregation laws. Oftentimes, he said, he’ll get a lot of pushback from kids saying, “I wouldn’t have put with that. I would have just walked right up and sat down.”
It’s really easy to say that from here, he pointed out, with the wisdom of hindsight. However, sometimes our participation with cultures like these can be unconscious. “For the white folks who were sitting at the front of the bus,” he said, “they literally don’t have to see it. Their eyes are literally pointed in a completely different direction. They can just look forward, and there’s quite a metaphor there.”
He explained to me that when somebody says, “Well, I would have understood what was going on if I had been there,” his response is “Okay, so now that we’re all sitting on the bus here, and we’re all sort of paired off, let’s help each other pull out a clothing tag we can look at, and let’s read out all the countries where people are working in slave-like conditions to make the clothes that we comfortably enjoy.
Like what has happened with the Sabbath in Luke’s Gospel, the system has inadvertently become co-opted. It has become about giving life to some people at the expense of someone else, and like the Pharisee in the story, we often don’t even realize that it’s happening. “This is mutual confession,” he said, “this is not about me calling you or anybody out, but we know this is true, but we don’t think about it daily, and we’re not taking action. It’s just part of the daily routine, and we make a quick buck because we get cheap clothes. But it’s not okay.” The good news is that once we go from being unaware to being aware, then we have choices we can make, and some of those choices may be hard.
I think it’s very interesting that the affliction that this woman suffers in this story is an arched back. Before she met Jesus, she had only been able to see one point of view her entire life. But Jesus literally straightens her spine. He literally changes what she is capable of seeing. What must it be like to readjust to seeing the world around you from a completely different point of view.
She stands up and praises God, but I have to wonder…that’s got to be kind of a traumatic experience, right? I have to wonder if this encounter challenges the point of view that the Pharisee had been taught to see of the Sabbath.
The Israelites praised God when they were delivered out of slavery from Egypt, too, but that experience was pretty traumatic for them also. It took them several generations to readjust their way of life from the one that they had been used to. They continually made mistakes, worshiped golden calves, and sometimes even wanted to go back to being slaves. At least that was familiar and easier than readjusting one’s entire life. God liberated the Israelites, but God also challenged them at the same time.
From Jesus’ point of view, healing, restoration, and wholeness is not just about our bodies. It broadens and expands what we are able to see in a way that liberates those whom Jesus comes on contact with but also challenges us at the same time. As we prepare to kick off the fall year together, may we be a church that is ready and open to the ways that God is working in our congregation to change our own point of view so that like she whose back was straightened, our lives and our mission may give thanks, praise, and glory to God as people who see differently.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.
Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
This morning marks my last Sunday with all of you before I will be embarking on three consecutive weeks (and Sundays) of travel. My time away during those three weeks will be a combination of service to the larger Church directing the Jeremiah Project at the Montreat Youth Conference, study leave at Columbia Theological Seminary planning out my sermon calendar for the remainder of 2016 / 2017, and some time away to visit my parents. As always, I am grateful to our session and to all of you for the gift of this time.
The first time I attended the Montreat Youth Conference as a teenager, I can remember our church group spent onee afternoon taking a hike up Lookout Mountain. As mountain hikes go, it’s a fairly mild trek, physically, but at sixteen years old, I may as well have been on top of the world. By the end of the week, as we gathered for the final night holding candles around Lake Susan and singing “Sanctuary,” the experience of my time in this place was a spiritual high as a teenager. There’s a reason why they often refer to it as a “mountaintop experience.”
It’s a similar spiritual high that many of the women here at Seville Presbyterian Church have described feeling when they remember their experiences at the Presbyterian Women’s Conference so many years ago. These moments can be deeply meaningful to us, even life-changing, but like any high (or mountaintop climb), eventually we come back down.
I will confess that the older I get, the more these “spiritual highs” seem to feel few and far between. I still experience them from time to time, and while they are meaningful to me, I do feel like I find my spirituality more and more in the commonplace. The author of Colossians seems to have similar feelings in this morning’s Scripture passage. Although the letter is attributed to Paul, it’s unlikely that Paul actually wrote it even though it echoes a lot of his language, theology, and poetry.
The main plot of the book of Colossians is a controversy that has sprung up in a gentile congregation. For those of you who may remember back in John 14, when Phillip asks Jesus just before his arrest, “Show us God,” Jesus responds, “You’re looking at him. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father...I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (vs. 9, 11).
I seriously doubt that Jesus’ disciples ever fully had all the answers to the cosmic mysteries of the divine. I doubt they ever had very many complex, complicated ideas about theology from a fancy seminary degree. However, they knew who Jesus was. And because they knew who Jesus was, they knew who God was.
But some people in the church at Colossae were not so sure. If Jesus really has overcome the powers of injustice in this world by being raised from the dead, then why does everything in our day-to-day lives feel…well…the same? Maybe there’s something we’re missing, they thought, or maybe we’re not doing it right. Spiritual highs are all well and good, but what about the days when it feels like nothing’s really changed at all?
Maybe the answer, they thought, is to self-medicate. Maybe by observing specific holy times, or by appealing to the celestial powers, or by fasting in extreme ways, we can induce visions or transcend our day-to-day experience in a sort of angelic and heavenly worship.
Far out, man.
It reminds me of an article I read recently about how scientists have conducted research on what the activity of the brain actually looks like when we experience these “spiritual highs” – these “mountaintop experiences” – and how by applying just the right stimuli to the brain, scientists can actually induce that feeling of spiritual transcendence through science. Apparently, some within the Colossian church had a similar idea two thousand years ago – albeit perhaps not quite as sophisticated. Maybe then, they thought, we can have real access to God. Maybe then we won’t feel quite so common, or ordinary, or alone.
This is all well and good, however as the author of this text points out, Christ came through the person a fully embodied human being to abide with us in the common and the ordinary. To denigrate, or to diminish, or to dismiss the common life of a person is to denigrate, diminish, and to dismiss the very dwelling place of God. The Imago Dei. A child of the Living God created in God’s own image. There is sacredness in the common day-to-day life for that is where Jesus abided, even himself. “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity,” Colossians writes, “dwells bodily.”
So, don’t buy into all of this stuff, Colossians says. “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit…according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
I think there is some wisdom to being wary of feeling overly dependent on soaring, emotional experiences in order to feel closer to Jesus. This past week, as we here in Cleveland experienced the Republican National Convention, and as the city of Philadelphia prepares for the Democratic National Convention, I am reminded of the dangers of letting our passions for earthly leaders, philosophies, and ideals override our capacity to remain grounded as neighbors for one another.
While I respect our political process and recognize that we need it in order for our society to function, I don’t take a lot of joy in it. Whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or a third party voter, the election cycle and the political system is specifically designed to whip us up into a frenzy. These conventions stimulate our emotions and create “mountaintop experiences” of their own of sorts. They are anything but commonplace, and in a way they also induce visions. But the visions that they induce are centered on putting our parties, our candidates, or our political rhetoric at the heart of our moral identity rather than neighborliness with those outside that group.
This can brainwash us into believing that whether or not our person is elected into office, or our party is the one that is in power is more important than literally anything else. That it is more important to be bound to a party and to a rhetoric than to be bound to one another in the Body of Christ. What bothers me about the political process is that if these are the sorts of visions that the process induces, then visions such as these are idolatrous.
If we really believe that if our party is no longer dominant, that if our party does not survive it would cause the reign of God to be thrown into jeopardy, then letters like this one take our world view and turn it entirely upside down. If the words of verse 15 are true – that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” - then God does not need your candidate to win or my candidate to win because the truth of the matter is that God has already won.
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition…puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the…whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grow[ing] with a growth that is from God.”
One of the things that I truly believe sets Seville Presbyterian Church apart is its commitment to being bound to one another as the Body and as a family above everything else. I have told this story many times that when I was in the process of first seeking a church, it was your mission statement developed by this congregation under the leadership of Rev. John Bassman that first drew me to you:
“Although there are a few church members who fall to the right or the left of the conservative/liberal scale, most tend to be…open to new ideas and discoveries…Seville Presbyterian church is a warm family of faith, loving kindness, seeking justice, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Our…long and rich history of being welcoming to newcomers..[this is]our life together.”
In other words, in spite of our differences, we are a family. Being a family with different opinions, different ideas, and different worldviews can be messy sometimes. It would be much simpler and much lower maintenance to only break bread with like-minded people. However, we have chosen to share this common life with one another in all our differences, and we are bound to one another by our ligaments and sinews.
By embracing our common life together, whether we realize it or not, we declare in our community and in our family that the powers of this world do not have the final Word. Christ has the final Word, and Christ has already won. It is an honor and a privilege to witness to that testimony with you.
This vision of Christ’s victory that Colossians describes is often referred to among theologians as the “Cosmic Christ.” This past weekend as I was talking with my friend, Claudia, about this passage, she told me that she believes talking about the cosmic is dangerous. “The cosmic translates to the worldly,” she said, “and if God wins, then the symptoms will be tangible. The poor will be fed. The prisoners will be set free.”
I think this is what the author of Colossians means when he writes that just as the fullness of the deity comes bodily, we, ourselves, “come to fullness” in Christ. This past week during one of my visits, I was asked by one of our shut-ins what we can do as a church. When we turn on the news, and we see the violence of our world, when we see the poor example that is often shown by our leaders, what can we possibly do that will make any difference in this world?
I told her that very few of us are likely to fix all of the problems of the world on our own. However, what we can do is go out into this world and be a better example. Show our neighbors through the example of our lives that it doesn’t have to be this way. Because when we do, the cosmic becomes tangible. Our common lives testify together that the authorities have been defeated, and Christ has conquered the world.
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
I will confess something to all of you this morning. When I first saw that this story of Mary and Martha appeared in our weekly lectionary cycle this week, my first gut instinct was to preach on something different this morning. There are a few reasons for this. For one thing, for those of you who keep track of such things, I preached on this passage three years ago when it popped up the last time, and I usually like to avoid repeating the same Scripture passages every lectionary cycle. As my friend, Kevin, used to say, “variety is the spice of life.”
But there is another reason. When I was a kid in Sunday School, the pictures of Mary and Martha in our illustrated Bible stories always looked so cartoonish. There’s Mary sitting with her hands folded neatly in her lap, her doe-eyes transfixed perfectly on Jesus, hanging on his every word, while Martha is running around in the background, up to her ears in soapsuds, fussing at everybody, and just generally looking frazzled. We hear this story, and it’s easy to start thinking, if only to ourselves, about who the people in our own lives are who meet descriptions like these.
And truthfully, I don’t think that’s a very helpful way to think about this story. This text has a long history of being used to divide people up and pit them against each other (particularly women). Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing,” and talks about “choosing the better part.” We assume that what he means by this is that he’s picking on Martha and playing favorites with Mary, which only makes it that much easier for us to do the same.
Personally, I really like Martha in this story. I’m an off-the-scales extrovert, so one of my favorite things to do is to have people over, or alternatively to visit people in their homes as many of you have been gracious enough to allow me to do. So, I appreciate that Martha invests herself in hospitality. I think Jesus does, too. He repeats her name twice in verse 41, which scholars have pointed out often indicates compassion, fondness, or pity in Biblical literature rather than judgment or criticism.
The problem is not that Martha has an active lifestyle or likes to get things done. The translation, “work” or “many tasks,” come from the Greek, “diakonia,” (dee-ack-o-NEE-a) which literally means “service” or “serving,” which (in Martha’s defense) is exactly what Christian discipleship expects of us! She’s practicing exactly what Luke preaches. This story picks up right where the Good Samaritan left off – a story, which as John talked about last Sunday, is all about radical, even scandalous hospitality. Twelve chapters later, Jesus, himself, will use this verb again: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.” (22:27-28)
So, I don’t think these tasks or the fact that Martha is a go-getter is what Jesus is all that concerned about. Those qualities are key in Christian discipleship, and the Church needs them in order to function. What’s troubling to Jesus, however, and what’s troubling to Luke, I suspect, is the notion of distraction. While tasks and action are important, we can also become so caught up in them that we fail to be fully present with the guest at the Table, which ironically, is what hospitality is all about.
This leads to anxiety, and we see that happen to Martha. She becomes “worried and distracted,” as Jesus says, not just by setting the table but also by judging her sister. Jesus warned about this already in chapter 6: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (v. 37). Because the more energy Martha focuses on getting upset about what Mary is doing (or not doing), the more it actually damages the hospitality towards the guest by dragging him into the middle of something he has nothing to do with.
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Mary Kramer who is a hospital chaplain recently pointed out that her issue with this story is that it’s triangulation. Martha has an issue with Mary, but she doesn’t say anything to Mary who is presumably right there in front of her. Instead, she goes to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that Mary has left me high and dry? Don’t you think…?” rather than directing these concerns to Mary, face-to-face, where they belong. Chaplain Kramer observes that this behavior is classic passive aggressive triangulation. “If you’ve got an issue with Mary, Martha, take it up with Mary.”
It’s a trap that that Martha falls into, and we’ve all done it. It’s completely human whether you’re a “Mary” or a “Martha.” Jesus recognizes this and feels compassion toward her. The great preacher Fred Craddock writes, “If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment.”
Jesus says, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” That “one thing” is not necessarily a life of just sitting around deep in thought or a life of getting up and moving. It is the ability to be present and focused about the care for the guest no matter who you are. Like the story of the Good Samaritan, this story is about the care and the attentiveness towards the stranger. But even more deeply than that, it’s about keeping our focus and the presence of our hearts and minds on the person of Jesus who is the true guest at the center of this story and who is, indeed, at the center of all things.
This has a lot to say to the state of the Church today. Rolf Jacobson, professor of Old Testament, Scripture, and Theology at Luther Seminary says, “Frankly…most congregations that are in decline and are worried about their future are worried about the wrong thing. They are distracted by the viability of their building, and the parsonage, and whether they can afford a pastor, and they’re trying to restore the 1950’s instead of the main thing, which is…participating in the mission of God. They’ve been distracted by keeping the institution going, and that’s not the point. It’s the mission.”
Now, all of those things are valid concerns, but I wonder what it would look like to put the mission directly at the center of our hearts and at the center of our concerns? There are probably a number of ways that we could answer that question, but from the point of view of stories like this one and the Good Samaritan, specifically, it begins with how we treat the guest and the stranger who has come into our midst, and it begins with how we treat each another.
Last weekend, during the memorial service in memory of the Dallas police officers who had been killed during the shooting, I was moved by remarks made by former President George W. Bush in his address to those who had gathered. “Too often,” he said, “we judge other groups based on their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions.”
I think this is true in major tragedies and large, systemic tensions between groups such as race, religion, and gender, but I think it’s also true between us in our day-to-day lives. As my friend, the Rev. Rob Jackson often says, “If an issue is national, it is also local.” When I become frustrated even with someone that I know, my kneejerk reaction is to begin to build a case against them in my mind. To judge them based on what I think is their worst example while judging myself by my best intentions.
This is not faithfulness. This is anxiety. Whether it is day-to-day frustrations with the people we know or the prejudices that have far deeper roots in our culture, our anxieties distract us from what it means to be faithful people. It’s the human condition. We’ve all fallen into that trap, and Jesus recognizes that same humanness in us just as he recognized it in Martha.
In Luke’s Gospel, the stories of Mary and Martha and the Good Samaritan are immediately followed by the Lord’s Prayer. In just a few moments, we will hear that language again in the words of Hymn #444, “Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive.” The commentary on this hymn that you will find printed in your hymnal offers the following reflection: “Few petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are as difficult to pray as this one, and we would not dare to pray it if we had to depend on ourselves rather than the example of forgiveness we are given in Jesus Christ.”
When we sing the language of the Lord’s Prayer together, we confess as one Body that no one is in a position to condemn. Only Christ…and in the end, Christ looks on us as Christ looked on Martha: with fondness, compassion, and mercy. But in order to “chose the better thing” as Jesus says, real meaningful change can only begin with us. We must be willing to look at our own reflections in the mirror and recognize the distractions we see in ourselves first.
Our prayer begins with the reassurance of the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the hope of that reassurance, may our prayers this week be prayers of confession, of self-awareness, and humility. If we can begin with ourselves, then maybe with God’s help we can rediscover the attentiveness, the awareness, and the presence of mind to care for the guest, to remain focused and present with the stranger, and to be centered in our care for one another as Christ has first cared for us. If we can do that, then perhaps we can truly experience the presence of the man from Nazareth who sits dining with us at the Table. Perhaps with Jesus’ help, we can choose the better thing.
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
2 Kings 5:1-19
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.
But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.
Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused.
Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” He said to him, “Go in peace.”
If you’ve stepped into my office here at the church, you’ve probably noticed a large painting hanging on the wall behind my desk. It’s a painting of Castle Well, an historic castle in the Netherlands where I studied abroad for a semester in college. I keep that painting in my office for a number of reasons. First of all, it represents a lot of fond memories that I have during that time in my life – being a young college student and travelling abroad. Experiencing new things.
But it also carries a deeper significance to me because Castle Well was where I first started to feel God’s call to ministry. It reminds me of who I was at the time, what was at stake for me, and how directly my first real feeling of call was tied to that time and place. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to get into all of that this morning. However, when I see that painting, it reminds me of who I am and why I entered into the ministry in the first place.
Eventually, that semester ended. I came back to America, and found myself re-adjusting to the cultures and the customs I had been used to. But when I returned home, I had discovered that I no longer felt like the same person. I was home but with a new sense of calling that I hadn’t felt before. I had ventured past the boundaries of my own country, of customs that were my own, and beyond the boundaries of my comfort zones. By venturing past those boundaries and into the presence and the company of the stranger, I had felt the presence of God. My surroundings were once again familiar, but my horizons had changed.
In the lectionary passage from 2 Kings this morning, Namaan, a commander for the King of Aram (otherwise known as modern day Syria) undergoes a dramatic transformation of his own by venturing outside the boundaries of his comfort zone – although his transformation is radically different from mine.
I will be honest with you, the story of Namaan is not one of my favorites in the Bible to preach. It is a satire filled with all sorts of interesting twists and turns, but it’s also one of the most complicated and convoluted “comedies” in the Old Testament. I’ll try to give you the Cliff Notes version: Namaan is a decorated war hero for the King of Aram, but his long and successful career is thrown into jeopardy when he is suddenly diagnosed with leprosy.
So. Hilarious already.
This is pretty devastating news, but a nameless servant girl whom his men have captured during the war tells the mistress of the house that she knows a holy man named Elisha who might be able to heal him. Namaan is excited by this news and reports to his King asking permission to venture out into foreign territory in search of this holy man who might be able to heal him. The King says, “Sounds great! I’ll text the King of Israel and let him know you’re coming!” But the King of Israel misunderstands the text message and thinks that he’s the one who’s being asked to do the healing.
“How do they expect me to do that?!” he bloviates, “Do they think I have superpowers?! Could it be that they are mocking me?!” This upsets him so much that he harrumphs around the royal court for a few verses and tears his clothes off. Apparently this sort of thing had people rolling in the aisles back in Bible times.
Anyway, our hero eventually finds his way to the house of the real Elisha, but things get off to an awkward start. For one thing, Elisha doesn’t even come out to greet him face-to-face. He sends his manservant, Earl, to tell him to wash in the river Jordan seven times, and then he will be healed. It’s kind of like when you make an appointment with your doctor, and after waiting for, like, a day and a half, he winds up just sending some nurse to come in and deal with you before finally poking his head in for two minutes and saying, “All right. Everything looks great. See you in six months.”
Namaan has just about had it up to here and says, “Why doesn’t Elisha come out and see me face-to-face? Can’t he just come out and wave his hands around and say the magic words? We have rivers back home. What makes this one so special? Come on, men. We’re leaving!”
But then one of his servants says, “Master, I have a better idea. Why don’t you just do it?” to which Namaan responds, “All right. Fine.”
“So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan,” the text says, “according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” At this time, Elisha finally makes his appearance, and Namaan is astonished. “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel,” he says.
Like all international travel, Namaan’s trip must come to an end. Soon, he will have to return back to the King’s court and worship the god, Rimmon, with him as expected by his office. This is an awkward dilemma for Namaan. He asks Elisha if he will be condemned for this, but Elisha simply says, “Go in peace.”
This moment, to me, is astonishing. By Old Testament standards, this is a pretty shocking gesture of tolerance and hospitality. Elisha’s predecessor, Elijah, famously went toe-to-toe with kings of other nations for pushing what he believed to be false gods. This moment with Namaan is a truly profound testimony to just how far things had come. When we see the often vicious animosity our varying faiths struggle with in the world today, quiet moments in the Bible like these are very moving to me, and I am reminded of what true hospitality in our faith tradition can look like.
Namaan returns home, healed and restored. He is once again surrounded by the customs that he is used to, but in a way, nothing is ever quite the same again. He has ventured out past the boundaries of his nation, past the boundaries of his customs, and, indeed, the boundaries of his comfort zones, and in the risky and unknown territory of the stranger, he has seen the face of God. Namaan is a changed man. His surroundings are familiar, but his horizons have changed.
This weekend we celebrate the Fourth of July, a holiday that I look forward to every year. A holiday where we kick back, grill out, and celebrate this particular plot of land that we happen to call our home. But this weekend, as I read this text, I am also reminded of the painting in my office – that the grace and the blessing of our God is cosmically and infinitely larger than any plot of land that we might happen to call our own. We are grateful this weekend for our nation, but we are also reminded that God’s mission reaches far beyond it. Far beyond our boundaries, our walls, and our comfort zones and into the company of the stranger.
This week of the Fourth of July, I invite you to venture past the boundaries of your own comfort zones into the risky and unknown territory of the company of the stranger. Maybe that means getting to know someone for whom America is a second home or for whom holidays like these are a very different experience. Or sharing a space with someone whose beliefs are not your beliefs, whose ways are not your ways.
To be challenged by them and to be changed by them so that we, too, may come home with a different horizon. That we may be a presence like Elisha that is able to reach across the boundaries and proclaim in the name of God, “Go in peace.”
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
When I was in seminary, I heard a song by the British singer and songwriter, Dido, called “Mary’s In India.” I’m not a heavy listener of Dido’s, but I’ve always liked the song. Listen to some of the lyrics:
“Danny is lonely because Mary's in India now. She said she'd call, but that was three weeks ago. She left all her things…her books and her letters from him. As the sun rises on Mary, it sets on him…Danny's not eating, he's drinking and sleeping in. I saw him last night at a party. He's definitely thin. He says he's happy. He looked pretty good, but I think that as the sun rises on Mary, it sets on him…
Danny came over last night, and I cooked for him. We talked about you, Mary, and how much we loved you still. He told me he's packed up your books and your letters and things, and as the sun sets on Mary, it's rising on him. And we danced…and I've seen some things you probably never got a chance to see. Don't worry Mary, ‘cause I'm taking care of Danny, and he's taking care of me.”
It reminds me of an expression I picked up some years ago from a friend of mine called “chasing ghosts.” It came from a story of an older man he once knew who lived in a house that had once belonged to his parents who had died years ago. After many years of living alone, the house had become too large and too impractical for one person and the upkeep too expensive.
Some years later, an opportunity presented itself to sell the house and move closer to family and loved ones, but the choice was painful. “Can you imagine what my parents would say if they knew their house was being sold right now?” he asked. When my friend telling me the story heard this, he responded, “Your parents built a beautiful life living in this home, but you can’t spend the rest of yours chasing after their ghosts.”
I think most of us probably find ourselves chasing after ghosts of our own at some point or another in our lives. For the character of Danny in the song, it’s the ghost of a relationship that no longer exists that has faded out of his life. For the man living in the house, it’s the ghost of the guilt he feels letting go of his grief and moving on with his life. Whatever our particular ghosts happen to look like, Jesus seems to have compassion for the people he encounters in Luke’s Gospel who wrestle with ghosts of their own, but he also gives them the same honest advice that my friend gave: “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Some of you may remember that just two verses earlier, the disciples run into an exorcist who’s running around and casting out demons. The disciples don’t like that he’s not one of them, so they try to stop him, but Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you” (vs. 49-50).
It occurred to me this week that this is pretty much the exact opposite of the common expression, "You're either with us or against us.” Jesus flips the script and says, “for whoever is not against you is for you” instead. From the very beginning, Jesus emphasizes that “just because someone is not 100% on your team, on your side, or in your group, that does not necessarily make them an enemy to be condemned, eliminated, or demonized.”
Jesus sends some messengers out to a Samaritan village to see if they might be willing to let them crash for the night, but it’s no dice. The Samaritans respectfully decline, and the disciples ask Jesus if he would like them to command fire down from heaven and burn them alive. Jesus replies, “Um…no, that’s okay. That’s not necessary.” What a gentleman.
To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened in the Bible. Elijah also burned Samaritans alive back in the Old Testament – specifically the Samaritan soldiers of the evil king Ahaziah back in 2 Kings. But Jesus says, “Just because they are not 100% with us all the time does not make them our enemy, and that does not give us permission to be cruel.”
I think it’s important to remember that Jesus has this in the back of his mind as things are about to get real. Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. Jesus is moving towards what he knows will be his own death. From this moment on, things like happiness, comfort, and safety are not going to be guarantees – for some of them, even options - for very much longer, and there are going to be some very hard choices.
A very excited someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus says, “Well, that might involve being homeless,” and we never hear back from this person again. A second guy comes up to Jesus and says, “I really want to follow you, but I can’t right now. I have to bury my father.” Funeral customs were pretty lengthy back then, and this could take a while. "You understand, don’t you, Jesus? I’ll let you know when I’m ready, though." Jesus responds, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
A third man tells Jesus that he would love to pack up and follow him, but first he has to make sure he finds some closure with his family. This makes sense enough, but once again, these things take time. “The mission is going to need to be put on hold again, Jesus,” he says, “I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”
Jesus finally decides enough is enough and says, “You’ll never be ready. No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This seems pretty harsh and pretty blunt coming from Jesus. It’s not like attending a funeral or saying goodbye to your family is that unreasonable. Even the Torah demands, “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12).
On the other hand, the closer Jesus gets to the cross, the more he does seem to be hearing excuses. “I don’t know if I can deal with being homeless. That’s asking a bit much.” “I need to bury my father.” “I need to find closure with my family first.” “I left the oven on.” At what point do these stop feeling like reasonable alibis and start feeling like a pattern?
When Jesus finally says things like “No one who…looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” or “Let the dead bury their own dead,” I used to wonder if what we were hearing was sarcasm. Like, “Look, are you coming or not?”
But then I wonder about the first story we just heard and Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Just because someone is not always 100% with you, that does not give you permission to be cruel.” Maybe Jesus’ intention here isn’t sarcasm or frustration but something more like honesty. He doesn’t call them stupid, or condemn them, or call down fire from heaven to burn them alive like his disciples suggested.
Jesus says, “If you have ghosts that you are not ready to leave behind yet, then God be with you. You do what you need to do, but my mission moving forward does not involve chasing them. Where I am going, the dead are left to bury their own dead. You are welcome to follow me, or you are welcome to stay here, but that’s the way it is.”
I wonder if I would be laughing so hard or so quick to sarcasm if the person Jesus was speaking to was me when I found myself chasing ghosts of my own? What if that person was you? I don’t know about you, but I think I would probably appreciate it if the word I heard from Jesus was a word of compassion.
If anything, stories like these tell us that Jesus looks on folks who are not entirely with him with compassion and grace, but he’s also not afraid to be honest about his willingness to let go of them and move on.
When I think about the Dido song, I’m struck by how she recognizes Danny’s pain. She looks on him with compassion, but she’s also not afraid to be honest with Mary about their own willingness to let go and move on. And they will never be able to do that if the rest of their lives are spent chasing Mary’s ghost.
I wonder if the same is sometimes true with the ghosts of our own and if following in the direction that Jesus is moving in means being willing to let some of them go. For our denomination, that might mean realizing that Jesus is calling us into a new future that Jesus has imagined – a future of new possibilities. This past weekend at the General Assembly, newly appointed stated clerk, J. Herbert Nelson, said, “I believe we are not dying. I believe we are reforming.”
In order for our denomination to move forward with Jesus into this future, however, he challenged churches to faithfully reexamine some of the ghosts of our own and which ones it was time to leave behind. The PC (USA) “can no longer be a 93 percent white denomination moving into the future,” he said, “and expect to grow.” Perhaps there are ghosts we still struggle with chasing even in our own congregations.
Or maybe the ghosts are more personal. Maybe the ghosts in our lives look more like Danny’s. Or the man who struggles with the pain of letting go of a parents’ home. Maybe for some of us, it’s a little bit of all of the above. Whatever your ghosts may happen to look like in your life, in our church, I hope that we can identify them as Jesus does: with love and compassion, first and foremost, but also with the courage to be honest with each other and with ourselves about what they are so that we may be open to a new direction that Jesus may be calling us in.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.