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.
Seville Presbyterian Church
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.
When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me’— for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
We’ve had a lot going on here at the church over the last several weeks between Pentecost, Confirmation Sunday, our special Memorial Day service, the yard sale this weekend, and the dedication of our new hymnals last week. Changes like these can be exciting, but they can also be stressful. Aside from all the hard work that goes into them, anytime a change is introduced change into a congregation, no matter how exciting, there is always an element of risk.
Recently, I was listening to a sermon preached by the Rev. Jeff Aiken, the minister who baptized me when I was an infant. Jeff is retired now. During this particular sermon, he had been invited to serve as a guest preacher at a former church for a special service, and he observed that it was nice to see so many familiar faces and that many of them were still sitting in the same pews they were sitting in when he’d left years later. You’ve all heard me tell the old joke: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Change the light bulb?! My grandmother donated that light bulb!
We are creatures of habit. Change is always risky. Thankfully, in the grand scheme of things, these changes over the last few weeks are relatively minor. But moments like this do sometimes make me reflect on how we might respond to changes that are major. What if the status quo had been shaken in ways that were radical or even scandalous? What if the stakes were actually life and death?
For Jesus and his followers in this morning’s Scripture passage, this is precisely the situation they find themselves in. During this chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sets out on a boat to the other side of Galilee into Gentile country – the territory of the Gerasenes. Jesus encounters a demoniac – a man possessed by demons – who has been banished out into the graveyards where Jesus finds him chained, and shackled, naked, and alone.
Stories of demon possession in the Bible are always tricky. The Greek here is, “daemon,” a description that is not quite as specific as spinning heads and green slime. It refers to “demons,” or “spirits,” or unseen forces in the world that are less powerful than God but are often outside the control of human beings.
Many modern scholars have observed that these forces in the human condition (while unexplained and mysterious back in Bible times) are probably what are now understood by modern medicine and psychology to be mental health concerns. Other faith traditions still hold to the belief that these events are supernatural.
I’m not sure how helpful it is to focus too much on that particular debate this morning. Frankly I’m not sure Luke is that interested in the debate either. Rather, he focuses on the human drama instead. The spirits beg Jesus not to cast them back into the abyss but to let them go into a herd of pigs instead in exchange for the man’s life. Jesus agrees, and the pigs immediately run off the side of the cliff, drowning in the lake below.
So, this is all very interesting, but what’s more interesting to me is what happens next. The swine herders run into town to tell everybody what happened, and they try to run Jesus out of town. Now, the popular interpretation among preachers is that the reason everyone is upset with is over property damage. Pig herding was often a source of local income back then, and many preachers blame their actions on the damage this may do to the local economy.
But here’s the problem. The text doesn’t say that. While it’s true that pig herders often made their income from swine, they also weren’t usually seen as particularly reputable people in the ancient world, so it’s probably unlikely that the entire population of a surrounding country (as Luke puts it) would get all riled up about this. Furthermore, the text doesn’t tell us that Jesus’ actions made people angry. The word that Luke uses is afraid.
“They found the man…sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”
The man who had not only been possessed but was considered downright dangerous – either to himself or others – dangerous enough to be shackled in chains out in the middle of a graveyard is now suddenly clothed and in his right mind. Luke uses the word, fear, twice - even “great fear,” and he goes out of his way to connect it to Jesus’ radical transformation of his condition. Matt Skinner, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary describes the situation like this:
“At least we knew where Crazy Larry was over in the tombs there. We had him under guard all the time. Now, all of a sudden, he’s well. He’s going to move in down the street next to the elementary school. I don’t want to live like that. What if he reverts back to his old ways? What else is Jesus going to mess with?”
The tragedy here is that nobody celebrates the fact that the man has been healed. Jesus has radically altered the status quo of the neighborhood. The status quo completely belongs to Jesus now. The community no longer has any control, and it’s throwing them into crisis. As Lutheran Theological Seminary Professor David Lose says, “Even if the status quo is bad, at least we’re used to it.”
Luke has a talent for pointing out irony in his stories, even when it’s painful. At the beginning of this one, we find a man suffering in agony alone. He is seen as unhinged, but everybody is perfectly fine with the way things are. At the end, when he is healed and restored, it is the status quo that has now been unhinged, and it is the community that has now been thrown into an uproar. One man in chaos, a community at peace. One man at peace, a community in chaos. It feels like it should be the other way around, doesn’t it?
As Jesus starts to load his things back up onto the boat, the man begs Jesus to take him with him. It would be so much easier than moving back into his old neighborhood, than moving back next to the elementary school. “This new situation is hard, and people are really having a hard time adjusting to it. I really think it would be better if you just took me with you.”
It’s almost like a neighborhood that doesn’t want to get well, but even if this new status quo feels “unhinged” to them, Jesus has “hinged” a new one in its place. A harder one, but a better one, and whether they like it or not, this is the way it is now. Jesus is not going to let them off the hook by going back to the way things used to be. He is going to leave things shaken up, unhinged, changed, and transformed, forcing them to adjust to a newer, more difficult, but ultimately healthier community for their own good.
All for the sake of one life. Jesus is willing to put the priority of keeping the majority happy and comfortable on hold if it could mean saving even one person. One person whose name we’re never even given. When Jesus asks him his name, the response he gives Jesus is “Legion.” But what’s heartbreaking is that the grammar here in Greek suggests that Jesus wasn’t talking to the demons. He was asking the man. “What is your name?” And we’re never told. The only name, the only response, the only identity that he can offer is the identity that has been given to him by his community – a community that has decided that he needs to be ostracized.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus seems to encounter people like this man everywhere he goes. They may not all be possessed by demons, but there never seems to be a shortage of people who are shunned and feared, demonized and ostracized from the community for whatever the reason may be.
Maybe it’s because no matter what kind of neighborhood we happen to call home, no matter what period of history we happen to find ourselves living in, there have always been and will always be individuals who live among us that throw our neighborhood into an uproar. Individuals who make “all the people” in our “surrounding country” afraid.
What are their names? Are they named “Legion?” Are they named “Depression?” Are they named “Rape Victim?” Are they named “Muslim” or “Refugee” or “Suspected Terrorist?” Are they named “Person of Color,” or are they names that remind us of the victims of shootings like Orlando?
Are these their names? Would we be able to put the priority of keeping the majority happy and comfortable on hold if it meant saving even one person? Are there status quos even in our own hearts that would be more difficult for us to give up than ensuring their safety, fellowship, hospitality, and inclusion?
The snapshot that Luke gives us is one of a community that is tempted and seduced to simply let them fade out of our awareness. To lock them up, to keep them out, or even just feel content to look around on Sunday morning and not see anyone sitting in the pews who fits that description. Even the man who is healed confesses to Jesus that it may just be easier to be written off by the community as “someone else’s problem” than to try to change things.
But the Jesus of this text does not accept this. He insists on unhinging the status quo and replacing it with newer and better one, even if it’s harder, and even if the work takes time. The Jesus of this text leaves the Gerasenes in a position of discomfort, and maybe that’s where he leaves us, too.
Examining the status quos of our own hearts that get in the way of allowing, embracing, and perhaps even adjusting to a neighborhood that privileges all of God’s children but perhaps especially those like this man. Where the name that we are given is the name given to us by Christ: “children of the Living God made in God’s own image.” Where children such as this man and all others like him may finally be seen, may finally be restored to the community…and may finally be celebrated…
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
1 Kings 17:17-24
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”
Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
When I was in seminary, my friends and I used to joke about what it was like to go off-campus and meet new people for the first time. Imagine you’re at a party or a social gathering, and you find yourself getting to know somebody really interesting. Suddenly they ask the dreaded question, “So, what do you do?”
Nothing gets the party started quite like announcing that you’re a clergy – or even a clergy in the making. My friends and I used to joke that telling someone that you are a preacher can completely change the tone of a conversation…whether you like it or not. I’ve seen people switch on the dime from laughing and having a good time to suddenly feeling very self-conscious and presenting what appears to be their best behavior from that point on.
Part of being an off-the-scales extrovert like me is that I love getting to know people for who they really are. So, moments like these make me sad because in that moment, I feel like I’ve lost them. I’ve lost the opportunity to get to know the real them and to be allowed into a space that can be vulnerable and authentic for both of us. Opportunities like those are precious to me. It makes me wonder if those moments and those relationships are precious to God, too. If this morning’s Scripture passage is any indication, the answer is yes.
One of the great tragedies our faith, I think, is how many people have been taught that faith is less about being an authentic human being and more about changing yourself into a more perfect, well-behaved person in the pew. Many of us have been taught that religion and church are not the places for letting our guard down and being vulnerable. They are places for projecting polished, idealized versions of ourselves instead.
One of the reasons why stories like this one are so amazing to me is exactly because of how vulnerable and raw these characters allow themselves to be even in the presence of God. The Old Testament prophet Elijah encounters a widow and her son. During Bible times, as second-class citizens, the well being of women and children was directly tied to the patriarch - a husband or a father.
In the cases like this where the text is very clear that there is no other male relative beside the son (who is not on the verge of death, himself), the widow would be forced to move to the margins of society and would be excluded from the community. Like many parents who have faced the grief of losing a child, this parent meditates on whether dying with her child together would be more merciful than outliving him. “I am now gathering a couple of sticks,” she tells Elijah in verse twelve, “so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”
But the miraculous happens. “Do not be afraid…” Elijah tells her, and sure enough what was once thought to be a meager last meal turns out to be enough food to feed everyone for many days. I was particularly moved by a story shared by a pastor named Nibs Stroupe: “I remember hearing the first part of this story when I was a boy…” he writes,
“…it was such a happy story that I wanted them to get married. Like the boy in the story, I had lost my father, and I was sustained by a loving and dedicated mother who was poor. How I longed for Elijah to come and live with us! Then comes the shocking second part of the story…the boy dies. I remember my anger at this…how could the boy die when things were going so well? I felt the sorrow and bitterness of the widow as she questioned Elijah. I knew Elijah's anguish as he questioned God. I joined [them] in their…passionate anger: ‘O my God, what kind of God are you? Do you kill boys like this?’”
I think it’s really interesting how Elijah responds to the widow. He doesn’t tell her that “Everything happens for a reason,” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Instead, he simply takes the boy upstairs and prays behind closed doors. But when Elijah prays, he’s not projecting the perfectly polished, well-behaved little boy in Sunday School anymore. This is not, “O Lord, thy will be done.” This is, “God, what are you doing? Are you doing this?” To paraphrase Hebrew Bible Professor Amy Erickson, God may work in mysterious ways, but Elijah is putting his foot down here.
And then, what the text says happened next is very strange. The Lord heard him. “The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.” So much of the story of Elijah is about God’s power, but in this small little story upstairs in the upper room, it is God who listens to Elijah and recognizes that what he says is true.
When this widow sees that her son is alive, she tells Elijah that she knows the words from his mouth are the words of God. Like a good minister, Elijah doesn’t argue, but as readers we know the truth. We know what really happened in the upper room. It was Elijah, not God, who initiated the conversation.
Elijah is often lifted up as one the great prophetic characters in the Old Testament. At Jesus’ transfiguration, he is seen appearing with Jesus right up there next to Moses. But I think it says an awful lot that when he prayed to God, he prayed in some of the most human ways possible. Just distant enough from God to question and challenge God (like Moses was), but just close enough to trust that at the end of the day, God is ultimately the final Word over life and death. Maybe in some ways, Elijah’s story is not so different from ours, and the relationship that God longs to have with us is one of honesty rather than perfection.
Now, we can’t gloss over the fact that stories like these also raise some pretty disturbing questions about God. Yes, God brings this kid to life, but people cry out to God every day. There are untold thousands of widows just like this one all around the world who cry out to God who are not so lucky.
Did God cause the widow in this story’s son to die or the deaths of the thousands of children around the world every day? I don’t believe that for a second. But does God allow those deaths to happen? Could God have done something to change them if God could?
No matter how you respond, it raises very difficult and disturbing questions either way. But before we go too far down that rabbit hole, let’s stay with Elijah and the widow for now. The story of their experience together doesn’t show us many clear, easy answers about this particular nature of God. What it does show us, though, is the kind of people that Elijah and this widow are. Bold, courageous, and not afraid to be honest and authentic before their God and before the world.
Later on, Elijah will face a very different challenge: corrupt kings and politicians like Ahab and Jezebel who have a very different god to sell people. A god of wealth and security to drown out the voice of this God of the Bible. Elijah will need all of that fire, all of that passion, and all of that courageous honesty in order to speak truth to power and to witness to God’s presence in the world. And so do we.
When we turn on the TV or look at the newspaper, we see that we, too, live in a world where corrupt kings and politicians tell us that the only gods worth worshiping are the gods of dominance, conquest, accumulation, and perfection. That things like vulnerability and authenticity are signs of weakness rather than holiness.
I have said many times that I feel very grateful to serve a congregation like Seville Presbyterian Church. We may be a smaller congregation, but we are also a family congregation. Like the widow in this story, we have been no strangers to tragedy, ourselves. We’ve known stories like this one that have ended with relief and celebration, and we have also known others that have ended with mourning and loss.
But what our stories have in common is that in times of life and death, we are there. When one of us needs to cry out in anger at God – to cry out in ways that are more honest than perfect like Elijah - we hold each other in that holy space. When we gather together in groups in our Lenten book study, or the Women’s Gathering, or Men’s Breakfast, we are willing to remain just distant enough to not shy away from the challenging questions but just close enough to be persistent in our witness to God’s presence in the world.
When a congregation as politically and ideologically diverse as ours is willing to compassionately listen to one another, to learn from one another, and work together to solve problems, we practice so much more than hospitality. To live as people of radical honesty and authenticity is, in and of itself, an act of rebellion. It is an act of resistance that declares that ours is a God who seeks to set us free from the political and media culture and from the Ahabs and Jezebels of the world. Perhaps that’s what radical prophecy looks like here even in a place like ours. Perhaps that’s what radical prophecy looks like in the soul of a human being. May we be people of our Lord, and may the words from our mouths be a word of truth.
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”
When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
This weekend is Memorial Day weekend. Over the years, we have observed Memorial Days here in Seville a number of different ways. As our worship committee has talked, and prayed, and discussed the most worshipful, prayerful, and appropriate ways to do this over the last few years, I have been particularly grateful for the valuable insights that we have received from veterans in our own congregation.
One such insight has been an understanding of the important differences between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Many of you may know this already. I did not. While Veterans’ Day is a holiday where we recognize veterans from every generation, Memorial Day is intended specifically to remember those who have died. “As someone who has served,” several veterans have expressed to us recently, “I would feel uncomfortable being recognized on Memorial Day. Memorial Day is for remembering those who have died, and that wouldn’t be right.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about Memorial Day this week and what it means to remember through the lens of the Gospel claim. My grandfathers were both veterans. My mom’s father, Lee Allen West, served in the Air Force for the Americans during World War II. My dad’s father, Marcellus (Marcel) Maria van Bulck, fought hand-to-hand combat for the Dutch army.
During the war, my dad’s father encountered a German soldier in the woods. Knowing that the two of them were alone, that there were no witnesses, and that the only possible alternative would be blood shed, my grandfather begged the man to walk away. Live, and let live. The German refused, and in the struggle, my grandfather killed the man there in the woods with a knife. For the rest of his life, my grandfather suffered terrible nightmares about the encounter and what we might identify today as PTSD. Every year on Memorial Day, I remember that story, and each year I am reminded of the impact that war has on all peoples and all families all over the world.
The lectionary this morning offers us a story between Jesus and an enemy soldier – in this case, a Roman centurion, not to mention a Gentile, which adds a whole other layer of tension. However, their exchange is very different from the one my granddad experienced. This soldier is not here to threaten Jesus. He is here to ask his help.
The centurion owns a slave who is on the brink of death. Rather than asking Jesus, himself, he sends a group of Jewish elders to deliver the message on his behalf. In fact, the centurion insists throughout this story that he and Jesus never actually meet face-to-face out of respect for the cultural and religious divide between the Gentiles and the Jews. An oppressor of Jews asking the help of a Jewish healer.
This story is filled with so many odd details to me. For one thing, in spite of the fact that Rome was an occupying force during the first century, Luke goes out of his way in this story to portray this soldier as a stand-up guy. The Jewish elders vouch for him almost immediately: “He is worthy of having you do this for him. He loves us. Look, he even built a synagogue for us!”
However, this centurion belonged to the militia of Herod Antipas. During the Roman occupation, it was not unheard of for Romans to throw a little bit money towards the Jewish synagogues. Some scholars have suggested that during the time of the early church, Gentiles like this soldier often had a curiosity towards Judaism due to its monotheism and ethical teachings. Others have suggested that there may have also been ulterior motives involved, observing that giving money to help build synagogues like these may have helped to curry favor, support, and loyalty among small Jewish communities to the empire. You scratch our back, and we’ll scratch yours.
Also, let’s not just gloss over the fact that even though Luke says that this centurion “values” this person “highly,” this guy is still a slave owner. Jesus is ideally positioned to condemn the very practice of slavery in the first place, and yet he doesn’t. For better or for worse, the nature of the slave’s life-and-death situation takes precedence over the conversation instead. This person is dying, and Jesus is the only one who can help. So, the centurion arranges an uneasy truce. A meeting through intermediaries on no man’s land. A desperate plea that even in a complicated and ambiguous situation, a life can be saved, and nobody has to die today. Live, and let live.
“I’m a soldier,” the guy says, “I know a thing or two about authority. I have eighty men who answer to me, and I answer to authorities of my own. But you…you have a much higher authority, don’t you? You command authority even over Caesar. Even over life, and death, and creation, itself.” These are dangerous words for a soldier. These are treasonous words.
“You don’t have to come into my house. You don’t have to be seen with me, you don’t have to condone me, or who I am, or what I do. I am not worthy to even come into your presence. But I believe that you can save a life. If you just say the word, I believe that a person can live.”
The text does not give us a whole lot of information about what his relationship with this slave was like behind closed doors. We don’t know the exact nature of his relationship with the Jewish community. We don’t know what choices he made yesterday, nor what his choices might be tomorrow. All we are told is that for one moment, if even for just one day, life mattered more to this man than “us vs. them.” All the importance of armies and sides falls away, and all that matters is life. And he believes in this moment that that Jesus will show up, and God’s resolve for life will prevail.
Over the weekend, I found myself reminded of a story known as the Christmas Truce of 1914. World War I had broken out, and Pope Benedict the Fifteenth, who had just taken office that September, called for a Christmas truce, an idea that had been rejected by military high command.
In a document later discovered by the New York Times, Private Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment remembered the evening of December 25th. Frost had covered the ground, and the moon shone over the trenches occupied by British and German soldiers. The armies were exhausted, miserable, and the casualties on both sides were considerable.
Across many areas of the battle lines, shots were still being fired. In some small pockets, according to eyewitnesses, only stillness. “I remember the silence,” veteran Alfred Anderson from the Fifth Batallion (the Black Watch) later remembered, “the eerie sound of silence.”
But then slowly from out of the darkness came a different sound. The sound of German voices singing Christmas carols. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade described the memory:
“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until…we started up [together] ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’…I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
“The next morning, in some places…” writes Time Magazine:
“…German soldiers emerged from their trenches, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’ in English. Allied soldiers came out warily to greet them. In others, Germans held up signs reading ‘You no shoot, we no shoot.’ Over the course of the day, troops exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, buttons and hats. The Christmas truce also allowed both sides to finally bury their dead comrades, whose bodies had lain for weeks on ‘no man’s land,’ the ground between opposing trenches…”
When I read this story, I was amazed. My initial reaction was “You would never see something happen like this today.” The text tells us that Jesus, himself, was also amazed. The Bible doesn’t often tell us much about Jesus’ emotions, but when he encounters Jewish elders and Roman centurions working together for the sake of preserving this one life – he says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Throughout history, this kind of faith has always come under harsh criticism. Three chapters earlier, when Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth that the Old Testament prophet, Elisha, did something similar by healing an enemy Gentile army commander named Namaan of leprosy in 2 Kings 5, the people became so angry that Jesus would mention such a story that they drove him out of town.
During World War I, when high command heard about the Christmas Truce, they, too, were furious and threatened to charge soldiers with Court Martial and treason. Adolf Hitler who was a Corporal of the 16th Bavarians at the time is reported to have said, “Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor?” However, perhaps British soldier Murdoch M. Wood said it best when speaking in 1930: “I…came to the conclusion,” he writes, “that…if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”
Stories like these don’t tell us much about the choices that were made the day before or the day after. Sadly, many reports remind the readers that this truce and others like it were only momentary and that in many places firing continued even that same day. All we are told is that in that one moment, even if it was just for one day, for these soldiers, there was a higher authority. An authority higher than any general, army, or nation over all of creation. It is in those moments that Jesus shows up, and as followers of Jesus, it is in those moments that we are called to show up, too.
This morning during worship, we will invite any veterans to come forward in silence, to receive a candle, and to light it from the light of the Christ candle in prayerful remembrance of those who have died. May we remember, and pray, and work together towards the day when families may no longer have to worry about sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters coming home safely. When war may finally be a thing of the past, and we may, all of us, as one global family sing hymns together as children of our creator.
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
When I was in sixth grade, my family took our first trip to New York City together. I had never been to a big city like New York before, and our parents decided to show us all the sights. The Statue of Liberty...Central Park...even a few Broadway shows. One of the shows was the musical, The Phantom of the Opera, by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was unlike anything I had ever seen.
A few months later, back at home after our trip, I was in the school library checking out some books when I saw a novel peaking out from one of the shelves. It was called Phantom by Susan Kay. On the front cover was the famous image of the mask from the show. The novel was tucked away in one of the back sections of the library that had been marked off for high school school students only, but I was immediately intrigued. I decided to take the book off the shelf and throw it in with my pile of books anyway. Maybe the librarian won’t notice, I thought. She did.
I wanted to know why I wasn’t allowed to read this book! When the librarian very kindly explained to me that unfortunately, she couldn’t let me take the book home, I was devastated. I wanted to know why. She looked down at the book, thought about this for a minute, and said, “Marc, I’m not sure you’re quite ready for this one just yet.” What did she mean, I wasn’t ready for this?! It’s The Phantom of the Opera. It’s not brain surgery. He wears a mask. He likes the girl. The chandelier comes crashing down. What more is there to get?
A lot has happened since I walked out of that school library a long time ago feeling disappointed. I’ve seen more. I’ve known more. I wonder if Jesus’ disciples felt disappointed when hearing what Jesus had to say in this morning’s text. “I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus says, “but you cannot bear them now.” Jesus is giving his farewell speech to his friends. To his disciples. Among many other things, we are merely two chapters away from Jesus’ arrest and trial before Pilate. It is in that very same chapter that Jesus will be betrayed and handed over to the authorities by Judas (18:2-3), and that when the rubber hits the road, even Peter will deny him (18:16-17).
Jesus, I think, knows that these things are coming. He knows that his disciples aren’t perfect, that they’re human, and that for now at least, they probably can’t bear what is coming. There id probably a lot that they’re not ready for. But Jesus also knows that one day they will be. They day will come when these same men that Jesus pulled out of the boat and these same women who have followed him will have seen more. They will have known more. Even though Jesus will no longer physically be with them, the presence of God will continue to be active and alive in the world and in them in the arrival of the Holy Spirit.
This is the mystery of our faith. “When the Spirit of truth comes,” Jesus says, “he will guide you into all the truth…he will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
This morning is Confirmation Sunday, but it is also Trinity Sunday. One of the great mysteries and paradoxes of the Trinity is that we believe that the fullness of who God is has been made known to us in the person of Jesus. And yet, at the same time, our faith is a lifelong journey. Even though Jesus is no longer physically with us, the Holy Spirit continues to be active in our world, continues to be active in us and continues to mold us and shape us throughout our lives just as that same Spirit shaped those fishermen who chose to get out of the boat and follow this man from Nazareth.
When Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he wasn’t talking to a group of 11-13 year-olds, was he? He was talking to grown adults. His disciples were my age. They were your parents’ age. Some were your grandparents’ age. Those words are not just spoken to people like you because of your age. They are spoken to all of us at every stage of our lives. There are still many things that God still has to say to all of us, and some of them we are still not ready for.
According to the book of Isaiah, even the heavenly beings could not fully see, come face-to-face with, or understand the fullness of God. It is a mystery too awesome, terrifying, and glorious that all they can do is recognize God’s presence and with complete humility and worship, cover their faces and cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” And so this morning on Trinity Sunday we sing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God almighty. God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
Dylan, Grant, Corah, Maddie, Hannah, and Joey, this morning we celebrate the gifts that God has given you. But we also celebrate the gift that God has first given us in the mystery and in the power of the Holy Spirit. You are here because of what you have learned, because of what you know, and because of what you have proclaimed to be true.
But you are also here because confirmation is not the end of the journey. There is still so much more to come. The gifts that we give you this morning are our way of telling you that as we continue to listen for what God reveals to us together, none of us are ever alone on this journey. We belong to a church family, but more deeply than that, we belong to the Body of Christ.
The gifts that God has given you are the gifts of your talents, the gifts of your skills, and the gifts of your passions, but more deeply, it is the gift of God’s Spirit. The Spirit that continues to reveal herself to you and to all of us for the rest of our days, who will continue to mold you, and change you as those first disciples were changed when they first stepped out of the boat and followed this man from Nazareth.
Dylan, Grant, Corah, Maddie, Hannah, and Joey, rejoice! You are members of the Body of Christ, and there is so much more to come. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All glory to God now and forever. Amen.