2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
As some of you may or may not know, one of my hobbies that I like to do for fun in my free time is podcasting. I do a periodical podcast about once a month or so where I interview people that I think are interesting. It mostly serves as a hobby. A creative outlet. Something to tinker with in my free time, and I think it’s good and healthy for pastors to have hobbies that they enjoy.
I don’t like to talk about it that much from the pulpit if I can help it. It feels needlessly self-serving or distracting. However, this past week, after recording an interview with an individual in our denomination for an upcoming podcast, he said something to me “off the air” that stuck with me throughout the week.
After I had turned off the recorder, he asked me if I had a church of my own. I told him that I was a solo pastor, and I told him a bit about our ministry here together at Seville Presbyterian Church, and (endeared) he responded, “Well, stay on the battlefield.”
I know what he meant, and I appreciated the word of encouragement, but I have to admit this felt like kind of an odd choice of words. For one thing, I’m a pacifist by nature, and while church life may not always be a bed of roses for us all the time, to me at least, it feels about as far removed from a battlefield as I could probably get, all things considered. Bombs do not go off. I don’t live with the concern that someone might open fire on me on any given Sunday at the end of a sermon, for example. Although we’ll see how this one goes, I guess.
However, as those words stayed with me a bit this week, I was slightly taken aback to see similar language pop up again in Paul’s letter in the lectionary this morning. “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation,” Paul writes, “and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Paul has every reason to look back on his life and see a struggle or a fight. His life has always been a struggle. As we talked about a few Sundays ago, the book of 2 Timothy finds Paul in prison towards the end of his life. His life is being poured out like a libation. He is dying. “Libation” is a fancy word for a drink that is poured out in offering or tribute to a deity. In this case, Paul’s life is slowly leaving him, and as far as he is concerned, he pours it back out to God. “To him be the glory,” Paul writes, “forever and ever. Amen.”
We sometimes romanticize the dying process in our culture a little bit, I think. We don’t like to talk about dying. It’s one of the last great taboos. We don’t like to talk about what it’s like to watch our bodies fall apart or our fears and anxieties about our own mortality. In fact, our culture doesn’t even like to use the word, “dying.” There’s too much finality to it. We prefer phrases like “pass on,” or “pass away” or “laid to rest.” It is with no small amount of bias that I appreciate seeing the honesty, compassion, and care that our congregation has always dealt with the dying process.
Our outside culture, on the other hand, encourages this subtle narrative that dying is a process of quiet dignity and grace, and we always hope that it will be. However, if Paul had anticipated these things or even a feeling of satisfaction were what he had anticipated at the end of his life, he might been very disappointed by the hand he got dealt instead. Paul’s circumstances are anything but. He’s not dying quietly at home in clean clothes, surrounded by friends, loved ones, and hospice care. He is in prison. His body is failing him. He has nowhere proper to sleep. As many scholars have pointed out that, there is very little in the way of dignity in a place like this, particularly at the end of life.
I wonder if Paul ever felt resentful about this? I can’t help but think that I would if it were me. “After a lifetime of service, O Lord, is this the way that you repay me? By leaving me to die alone in prison without my loved ones? To die without dignity?”
When I think back on the image of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, I can’t help but think that even he must have had moments of feeling conflicted. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Jesus, himself, enjoyed very little in the way of quiet dignity and grace at the end of his life. He died a criminal’s death, stripped, beaten, mocked, and crucified. There was no hospice or medical care to attend to him. But incredibly (at least to me), Jesus gives glory to God. From the cross he cries out, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” before finally pouring out his own like a libation in worship and praise: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 34, 46).
Life was no walk in the park for Jesus. It was a struggle. Jesus certainly never inflicted harm on another human being. He have may have overturned the occasional table and caused a scene in the temple here and there, but he is never once on record anywhere in Scripture as actually coming to blows with a human person. As Jesus knew and as Paul would come to know, the life of faith is a life that is no stranger to adversity.
However, this fight - the good fight - is not a fight that involves guns, or fists, or weapons. Rather it is the eternal rebellion of peace, justice, and faithfulness against the powers of violence, injustice, and oppression in our world. It is a conflict that has sprawled across the centuries, and as the man says, our call, our challenge of the Gospel is to stay on the battlefield.
As Paul comes towards the end of this life, he’s getting ready to pass the torch on to Timothy, his successor who will take up the mantle and step up into the pulpit after he is gone. However, in a way, Paul’s letter is not just written to some young, new protégé. It’s written to an entire community. What Paul passes on and leaves behind is not just to one person but for all of his students who have followed him and for all of those who share a common life together in Jesus Christ.
Paul wants to pass on that this life of discipleship matters. That his life has mattered. It makes me wonder if sometimes the way that faith is really passed on or made reliable is not always about having a fancy seminary degree or having all the best answers to all of the cosmic, spiritual mysteries, or convincing yourself to have less doubts. Sometimes I wonder if the faith is made more reliable when we participate in community. When we share a common life together in the person of Jesus Christ, and that life matters.
Paul has fought the good fight. He has finished the race, and sometimes things did not always work out the way Paul thought they would. But to Paul, the race still matters. To Paul’s students remembering the story of their teacher, his life mattered. But most importantly of all, to both Paul and to his followers, God still matters.
For those whom Paul leaves behind: his students, the community of faith, and all of us, that race continues. It reaches across the generations and across the entire history of our ancient tradition. For some of us, that race is just beginning, living with the call and the promise that has been handed down from those who came before us. For some of us, our story may look more like Paul’s: living with the knowledge that we are preparing to finish the race, ourselves, looking back on a life well-lived and thinking about what it means to depart this life in confidence.
Whatever season we happen to find ourselves in, we do not run this race alone. Like Paul and like Timothy, it is a race that we run together in community with one another, but more deeply than that as Paul calls us to recognize, it is God who remains with us from the beginning and who is there to meet us in the end. God continues to work in us and through us. Our lives and our life together matters because God matters, and we testify to God’s presence in our world and in our community together.
We use the words, “saints,” in our Presbyterian tradition, particularly this time of year as we draw close to All Saints Sunday. Typically, when I hear the word, “saint,” I tend to imagine people in robes we often see in statues in big cathedrals, but the Apostle’s Creed reminds us that really all of us are saints. Both the living and the dead. When we say, “I believe in the communion of saints,” we are saying that we are all connected by the power of the Holy Spirit – not only to each other but to those who have come before us and to those who will follow after.
During my study leave this past summer, I had the opportunity to sit down with one of the saints in my life. Her name is Katie, and she was my acting teacher back when I was growing up in Sumter, South Carolina. I was very shy, very quiet, and painfully awkward growing up, and Katie was one of those people who worked with me. She understood me. She pushed me. She challenged me and brought me out of myself.
I feel very grateful that she is still in my life. And as I sat with her in her living room, I told her that I didn’t think I would ever be able to repay her for what she has given me in my life. That her life mattered and still matters. As she leaned in, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. “Then pass it on. Now it’s your turn to be that person now for someone else.”
It is precisely the challenge that Paul gives to Timothy and by extension to all of us. “Pass it on.” It begs the question. Where have you seen God at work in the saints of this community? As we look forward to All Saints Sunday, I would encourage all of you to spend some time reflecting this week on the saints in your life – both the ones who are no longer with us and the ones who are. If you have an opportunity to reach out to one of those saints this week and let them know how you have seen God’s presence in their life and continue to see it today, I would encourage you to do so. To tell them the ways that they have kept the faith. That their lives have been and continue to be a testimony of the living God, and ask them about the saints that they have known whose lives have mattered to them.
Because to Paul, this is what matters most: that God is at work in our common life with one another, and our lives testify together. That we continue to see the presence of God in the lives of our saints, and together our lives, indeed, proclaim:
“To [God] be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
-2 Timothy 4:18
Genesis 32: 22-31, 33: 1-4
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
When I was in seminary I spent about a year and a half as a hospital chaplain in North Atlanta as part of a program called Clinical Pastoral Education or C.P.E. During one of my overnight shifts, I got a call at around four in the morning from nurse’s station up on the fifth floor. One of the patients had awoken in the middle of the night from a nightmare and wanted someone to talk to, so the nurse decided to call the chaplain to come up and visit with him for a little bit – who was me.
During my visit with him, I asked him what was wrong, and he explained that he had awoken from a terrible nightmare where all of the awful things that had done in his life had flashed before his eyes. I asked him if he wanted to talk about any of them, and his eyes started to well up with tears. His wife was in the room with him at the time, and I noticed that she took his hand. I braced myself for the worst.
“When I was about seventeen years old,” he said, “my friends and I used to sneak into the bathroom at school and put saran wrap on the toilet seat.” He looked up at me as he said this the way a child might look at a parent who is about to punish them. “That’s it?” I said. I mean, don’t get me wrong. That’s exactly the model of Christian charity, but I thought he was getting ready to confess to murder or something.
“Oh, it gets worse,” he said, “We used to pick on nerds at school. In Boy Scouts, when we’d go on camping trips, we’d wait until the adults weren’t looking, and we’d tie this one kid up to a tree or a flagpole and steal his things from out of his tent. Don’t know why we did it. Never did anything to us. He was just a nerd. We were horrible to him.”
As he spoke, I remember his wife reached over and took his hand. “Honey, that was a long time ago. We’ve all done things when we were young and stupid that we aren’t proud of. I love you more than anything in the world,” she said, “You’re a different person now.”
I asked him if this was somebody that he could get in touch with. Would it help to reach out to him even so many years later and offer him an apology? He said, “I think I’d like that.” I laughed and said, “He probably doesn’t even remember it.” But his eyes were deadly serious. “I bet he does.”
It’s amazing the things that we carry with us over the years. We all, at some point or another, carry around confessions that haunt us. I find it fascinating that the nighttime has a way of bringing to the surface that which we might rather keep buried during the day when we’re vulnerable and our defenses are down.
Jacob has quite a lot of old wounds that I suspect he might rather keep buried, and he has quite a bit more on his mind than schoolyard pranks. Jacob is on the run for his life. He tricked and deceived his blind father. He’s cheated his brother out of his birthright and ruined his life. He committed treachery against his uncle, and now he’s out on the lamb. Jacob has done some bad things. And in the morning, he will have to confront his brother, face-to-face, nearly twenty years later. After some twenty years of unspoken and unresolved conflict. How well do you think he is sleeping that night?
The Bible doesn’t actually say that what happens next is a dream, but the scene is very dream-like, ethereal, and strange. When Jacob is alone, he is visited by a man who wrestles him until daybreak. Rabbi Burton Visotzgy, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary, says:
“We always refer to Jacob wrestling with ‘the angel.’ That’s not what the text says. The text says that Jacob wrestled with ‘a man.’ And I think this is something that we have to recognize in Genesis continually. It’s very hard to know when a man is a man and when a man is an angel. And to make it more complicated, it’s hard to know when an angel is an angel and when an angel is, in fact, God.”
The text in Genesis doesn’t offer us any easy answers. The Hebrew word here, “ish,” can mean a human, or a deity, or both. By the end of the night, the figure tells Jacob, “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
Back in the 90’s, Walter Brueggemann (one of my favorite Old Testament scholars and theologians) participated in a PBS special with Bill Moyers entitled “Genesis: A Living Conversation.” During the special, Professor Brueggemann said, “It’s...the way dreams and nightmares work, that when you have an adversary or an antagonist in a dream, that agent has many identities that merge from many times and places, and when you wake up, you cannot quite sort out who it was.”
What we do know, however, is that Esau, the brother whom he hasn’t seen for many years, the brother from whom he stole the birthright, is waiting for him the next morning. Is it possible that deep within the consciousness of Jacob’s mind is the story of Cain and Abel – the predecessors of his family – and the fratricide?
As he wrestles with this strange figure, is it possible that he also wrestles with the deep and primal fear that haunts him? That history will repeat itself? And is it possible that in some strange way that we mortals may never really fully understand that God is a present and active participant in that struggle?
I think it’s interesting that when the two brothers do finally meet the next morning, while Jacob braces himself for war, Esau instead “ran to meet him, and embraced him…fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (33:4), and Jacob says to him, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (33:10).
Jacob’s wrestling match changes him forever. It wounds him. It unhinges his hip, but it also changes him in other profound ways as the figure gives him a new name: Israel. The commentary in the New Oxford Annotated Bible writes, “Jacob’s new name reflects a new self…‘the one who strives with God. And with humans…in this way, the community of Israel, as descendants of this god-wrestler, is depicted as a group that successfully strives with God and humans.”
That journey continues in our own lives as people of faith, and the struggle is lifelong. With God and with humans. With unresolved conflicts and with confessions that haunt. Each of us has Esaus of our own. I find it a lot easier to relate to Jacob than to relate to his brother in this story. I find it so much easier to keep running and to keep those old wounds hidden and buried deep inside than to face the music and risk the unknown consequences.
But if stories like these are to be believed, then eventually (like Jacob) none of us can keep running forever. Ultimately, whether it’s in the presence of the Esaus in our own lives or in the divine presence of the One who waits for us, each of us must eventually face the music and risk that which may threaten to wound us, to change us, or worse. But with that risk also comes the possibility of blessing. With that risk also comes the possibility of new life, a blessing that we might risk missing out on if we run from it forever.
A few years ago, I read a story of a forty-seven-year-old man named Dan who is in Alcoholics Anonymous. When Dan was twenty-six years old, he found himself waking up one morning next to a woman whose face he could not recognize. As he made his way towards the door, Dan noticed that the woman’s purse was open, and after opening it, he removed the twenty, and pocketed it. Just as he was about to leave the apartment, when he heard something.
It was the voice of her two-year-old son as he was reaching for what he thought was candy lying on the kitchen table. But it wasn’t candy. It was a line of cocaine. Dan removed the drugs from the young infant’s reach and considered whether or not he could really take this stolen money from a single mother. After a few moments, he pocketed the money anyway and walked out the door.
The guilt and the shame of that moment, Dan said, stayed with him his entire life. The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous involve making a moral inventory of everything you’ve ever said or done to hurt somebody and then doing everything in your power to make amends. But Dan never shared that story.
Dan is forty-seven now. The year that Dan celebrated fifteen years of sobriety, Dan was invited to come up and give a speech. Dan took a deep breath and clenched the hand of his sponsor, and after years of being haunted by the horrible truth, Dan finally told his story. As he finished, his voice cracking and his eyes watering, Dan noticed something. People were not gasping or fleeing from the room in horror. They were finishing up slices of cake. They were refilling cups of coffee.
To Dan, this story represented the worst, most horrible thing he could have possibly imagined, but to the community of people around him, they had heard worse. They had known worse. Some of them had done worse. To them, this was ordinary, everyday, business as usual. But for Dan, after twenty years of running, to face the music and to be met with grace by his community was a blessing.
It is a blessing for us all. Whether Dan realized it or not, there is a word for this in our faith tradition, and that word is repentance. Sometimes repentance is as simple as saying you’re sorry. Other times it’s not so easy. Sometimes grace takes time. For Jacob, Esau had twenty years to think about and process what his brother had done to him. I suspect that if we had talked to Esau the day after it happened, he probably wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic to hug it out.
But sometimes time has a way of changing us. Time seemed to have a way of changing Esau just as it changed Dan or that man in that hospital room. Sometimes grace is long and processed. Repentance is not always simple or easy, however our faith both invites us and challenges us to be people who repent. It is a necessary part of our journey as people of faith because in it and through it we can be made changed people who learn, and grow, and deepen as children seeking to draw closer to God.
Who are the Esaus that you need to reach out to today?
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
2 Timothy is an interesting book. It’s a book about Paul, but it most likely wasn’t actually written by Paul. It reads more like a novel where Paul is the central character written by his followers after he was gone. By students remembering their teacher. 2 Timothy is about remembering. Towards the end of my seminary career, a few of my friends and I used to joke about how the New Testament seems to portray Paul throughout his life. How Paul in his early letters and in the book of Acts seems so passionate. He’s getting up in people’s faces and arguing with them. He writes entire letters to churches about how they’re completely losing control and how they need to straighten up and fly right. His later letters seemed just as passionate, but it also seemed like he’d mellowed some. He didn’t seem quite as in-your-face. Or at least, that’s how I remember it…
I wonder how Paul’s followers remembered him when they wrote about him in this book. The plot of 2 Timothy takes place towards the end of Paul’s ministry and towards the end of his life. Paul is getting ready to pass the torch, to hand the pulpit over to a new protégé and a new successor named Timothy (hence, the title of these two letters). And before he does, he wants to try to offer this young man some words of wisdom. He wants to pass something of his collective experience on to the next generation. He finds himself looking back on his life. On everything that he’s gone through. Everything he’s experienced and believed in. Everything that he’s suffered and lost.
What would we remember if we were in Paul’s shoes? It makes you think about the things that we choose to remember and why. My mother can still remember the teacher who gave her a B in high school, and she can tell you why she still hasn’t let him live that down to this day. I can still remember the inside jokes my friends and I used to have in middle school. The Sunday School teachers who taught me when I was little. I can remember mentors who moved me and inspired me. Old romances. Old heartbreaks. Old hurts and pains. Old grudges from years long gone.
I can remember seasons of my life that I look back on fondly, and I can also remember seasons that I wish I could forget. I suspect that Paul, a man who once went by the name of Saul, had seasons that he probably wishes he could forget, too. Paul knows that there was a time in his own life when he used to persecute, imprison and even kill Christians. If he had been there before his own conversion, it could have very well been someone like him hammering the nails into the crucified Christ.
But when the resurrected Christ whom Paul encounters on the Damascus Road could have offered him vengeance, retribution, or righteous punishment, he offers him grace, love, and a redemptive, transforming mercy instead that changes Paul’s life. When Paul looks back on all that he has experienced, all that he has known, this is what he finally offers to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”
This is the practice of remembering, and it has deep roots in our faith. God spoke to Israelites in the book of Exodus: "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy" (20:8). When Paul writes to the church at Corinth: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread, and…broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (1 Cor. 11:23-24).
As much as Paul is known throughout the New Testament for preaching and even arguing high theological concepts and ideas, I love that at the end of the day when all of the arguments and debates have faded into memory, what truly ultimately matters to him is the person of Jesus. “Avoid wrangling over words,” Paul writes, “which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.” We’re not given a lot of context in 2 Timothy as to what exactly Paul is referring to. There are hints here and there throughout the letter that 2 Timothy was probably written in response to some specific controversy going on in the church at the time.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, I don’t really care. Because the truth of the matter is that it could have been any number of scandals, any number of theological arguments, any number of controversies. Whether they were arguing about the nature of Jesus’ divinity or circumcision, whether there was really a virgin birth or whether the resurrection was physical, or spiritual, or metaphorical, whether they were arguing about whether to vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, or what color drape runners they should pick out for the fellowship hall – whatever it was in that particular moment in time, it doesn’t matter because Paul’s words would still be just as true no matter what.
I need look no further than social media during a political election season to wonder if all of our yelling, and arguing, our name calling and degrading really does much more to change or redeem our lives, or if at the end of the day, it does much more than ruin each other. That’s not to say that important and thoughtful discussion – even debate – do not play an important role in our lives, but I wonder if our human condition makes us that much more susceptible to get so caught up in our passions that we forget the person of Jesus in the process and forget to see the image of God in the other person.
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead…that is my gospel.” As long as it’s confession time, let me go first. That’s a tough pill for me to swallow. You see, I like to argue. I like to debate. I like to debate because I like the marketplace of ideas. I like having my beliefs and ideas pushed. I like being stretched to listen and consider ways of thought that are challenging. I like having to re-examine closely held beliefs of my own when presented with new evidence to see if they still hold up because if I’m able to do that, then chances are that means I’m probably learning something.
But if I’m completely honest with myself, one of the other reasons why I like to argue and debate is because I like being right. Does anybody else know what I’m talking about? Does anybody else like being right? And sometimes if I’m not careful, my desire to learn, and grow, and deepen as a human being from conversations with other people can be overridden by my desire to be right.
It’s part of the human condition. The Roman Empire’s desire to be right was what led to them putting people like Paul in prison like this in the first place. Throughout history we have seen that when the person of Jesus is forgotten, when the person of Jesus is not remembered, it can lead to all manner and form of hurt and persecution, from the violent oppression of the empire, to the cruel offhand comment of the bully at school, to the breakdown and resentment of our own relationships with friends and neighbors. Like Paul, we’ve all witnessed it happen at some point in our lives. We’ve been victims of it, and like Paul at some point, we’ve also been participants in it and part of the problem.
That’s what makes the paradoxes in Paul’s writing here so fascinating. It’s so easy for me to take for granted what it must have meant for Paul to write these words, “If we deny [Christ], he will also deny us,” given his history. To own up to the fact that there are aspects of his past of his own life, of his own history, and of his own beliefs that have run counter to the Gospel.
Yet when Christ could have shown Paul punishment on the Damascus Road, he showed him grace. When Christ could have dealt Paul death, he instead offered him new life. “If we are faithless,” Paul writes, “[Christ] remains faithful.” The Gospel, the Word of God, and Christ’s faithfulness are much larger than any of us. As Paul writes these words in chains at the end of his life, he writes that the Word of God is not chained.
This is what Paul has chosen to remember: that at the end of the day, he is a human being who has been changed and transformed by the encounter of the person of Jesus. What Paul chooses to remember is that this singular fact matters more to him than just about anything else in his life. And more importantly, this is what Paul has chosen to pass on. If Paul can pass anything on to Timothy, to his generation, to the ages, or to us, it is this singular fact: that in Jesus Christ, the Gospel has changed him and in Jesus Christ, the Gospel can change us, too. We can walk away from buildings like this and choose to remember anything, but Paul’s words challenge us, first and foremost, to remember this. How have we been changed by the person of Jesus, and how can we pass that on to others?
When we run ourselves tired, volunteering long, countless hours to the ministries of this church, we do so because we remember that Jesus Christ has changed us. When we spend long hours sewing and making fabrics to the glory of God, we do so because remember that Jesus Christ has changed us.
When we volunteer for Vacation Bible School because we believe that it matters to honor the promises of baptism, we do so because we remember that Jesus Christ has changed us. When we volunteer to help with Sunday School - even on the mornings when it’s hard, and only two kids show up, and we feel discouraged – we do so because we remember that Jesus Christ has changed us.
When we here at Seville Presbyterian Church - a congregation of conservatives and liberals, a congregation of Democrats and Republicans, remain committed to our love and care for one another and to our common life together not in spite of our differences but because we are brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ, we remember that the Word is unchained and that we have been changed by it. That is what we pass on.
I don’t want to compare the hardships of our lives to the hardships that Paul suffered during the days of the Roman Empire. They are not the same. However, our desires to remember and to pass on the Gospel are. Jesus Christ has changed us and is at work to enact God’s redeeming purpose in the world. Even in a world like ours. In Jesus Christ, our lives are changed, and we are made into new people. That is worth remembering. That is worth passing on. That is, indeed, Good News.
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
A few weeks ago, I was reading a blog post about Mother Theresa entitled “The Most Evil Woman Who Ever Lived.” While the popular mainstream narrative of Mother Theresa’s life lifts her up as one of the saints of our time, the article I found myself reading was written in response to some of her critics such as writers like Christopher Hitchens who saw Mother Theresa as more of someone who, among other things, abused the oppressed and cozied up to dictators for her own self-aggrandizement. The author of this particular article takes issue with this. Let me read you some of his response:
“[Mother Theresa] insisted on telling the poor that they were worthy, that their suffering wasn't in vain, and that they had value as human beings no matter what their condition. Why is this wrong?...faced with someone dying in squalor, you can either affirm their life or not. You can frame their suffering as meaningless, as something inflicted on them by a power beyond their control. ‘Your life up until this point, all the hurts and losses? A waste of time. Being poor sucks. Oh, you're dying? Pity. Hope oblivion works for you.’
That's not to say I have a problem with being aware of systemic injustice, or of calling attention to it…faced with a starving man, writing a [blog] post…may not be wrong, but it is a…lot less relevant to that actual human being than putting food in his belly. Faced with an abandoned soul, you don't offer up a tweet about social isolation. You take time for them and show them compassion…she makes sure the poor don't starve waiting for utopia to materialize.”
The blog is a passionate protest and a cry of indignation. At it’s heart, the point that the author makes is that the notion that a person’s faith is in vain – the idea that the small acts of kindness, compassion, and care are ultimately meaningless – simply because no one person is able to overturn the entire system by themselves is ultimately a cop-out that does more to let us off the hook for not getting anything done than it does to bring about redemptive change in our world.
Jesus seems to hint at something similar in this morning’s Scripture passage. For Jesus, the common everyday acts of kindness that we see in our day-to-day lives are not meaningless. They are, in fact, daily proclamations of the Kingdom of the God and expressions of the Gospel, itself.
Jesus tells the story of a mustard seed. “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,” Jesus says, “but…it would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Jesus says, “If someone sins against you seven times a day, then be ready to forgive them seven times a day.”
I feel like I relate a lot more to the disciples than Jesus in this story. “Seven times a day?! That’s easy for you to say, Mr. Messiah Man, but most of us are not saints. Most of us are not miracle workers. We’re just ordinary people living our lives trying to do the best we can from day to day.” The disciples look at each other, and they say, “We’re going to need some help. If this is what you’re going to expect us to be able to do, then you’re going to need to increase our faith.” Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted…’ and it would obey you.” Matthew’s version of the story actually says that they could move mountains. (17:20)
There is some discussion among scholars about whether Jesus is being sarcastic. “Look, you don’t have to be Mother Theresa, people. Even the faith of a mustard seed can do it!” I don’t know if that was exactly how Jesus said it, however I suspect that what Jesus is getting at is that if even the smallest things that we can do, even the most common every-day acts of kindness, compassion, and service can make the world of difference even if we don’t realize it.
Jesus compares this life of humble service to the everyday life of a slave just doing what they would naturally do without any pomp or circumstance. As a straight, white, heterosexual male standing up here from the pulpit reading words like these, this sort of language makes me cringe. If you have a Bible at home that has a different translation, this is one of those passages that gets a little tricky for us. The New International Version, for example, uses the word, “servant,” arguably softening the translation up to something less offensive. Whereas the New Revised Standard Version (which is the pew Bible you have in front of you) sticks with “slave.”
Personally, I’m a little torn. Technically, I think “slave” is a much more literal translation from the Greek. However, I can also see why the NIV decided to go with “servant” instead. Not because I think the Bible needs to be toned down but because when we hear the word, “slavery,” today, it’s hard for us to compare what Jesus is describing to anything other than the African American experience in the United States, and I think that creates a lot of problems on both sides. Slavery in the United States involved people being ripped from their homes, systemically oppressed and dehumanized, and made to feel more like pieces of property than living, breathing human beings (much less equals).
This is not to say that being a slave in Jesus’ day was exactly a piece of cake, but it probably looked a lot more like “Downton Abbey” than “12 Years a Slave.” Scholars have pointed out, for example, that back in Bible times, someone might serve as a slave in your household for a temporary period of time in order to pay off a debt, and then they were free to go whereas that sort of thing would have been virtually unheard of during Colonial America. This only makes the years and years that have been spent horribly misusing passages like these to try to justify slavery in our country all the more horrifying and offensive.
This was a very different arrangement in Jesus’ day, which is why (in a way) servanthood may well be a better translation if not exactly a literal one. That doesn’t necessarily make the system of Jesus’ day great or okay, but Jesus also uses one of these Greek words, “diakonia,” (dee-ack-o-NEE-a) again five chapters later when describing himself: “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)
I think what Jesus is getting at, at the end of the day, is that the life of following him is rarely going to be a glamorous one. It’s a life that’s going to look a lot more like what the author felt Mother Theresa was at least striving for: a life of common service for one another and for our community. A life of kindness and hospitality for those that the rest of the world has decided do not deserve it.
However, Jesus’ response is that to the people whom we have committed to serve, the difference that we make is greater and deeper than moving mountains or uprooting the tallest tree. As the blog post said, a life where actually being able to put food in people’s mouths and putting clothes on people’s backs is going to do a lot more good than trying to find some magic wand that will somehow fix all our problems.
A week ago today, as many of you know, Bob Antal’s brother, Richard, died after a long year of hospice treatment. I confess I had never met Richard before, so my preparation for presiding over a service like his funeral yesterday mostly involves doing a lot of listening especially to those who knew him most. Linda was telling me that whenever there was an accident or a fire, Richard would always stop or pull over to see if there was something he could do even if he didn’t know the person.
A cynic might say that this hardly fixes the problem of automobile accidents in our society altogether, and what difference does it really make in the end in the cosmic scheme of things? However, I would imagine that if you were to ask one of those people whom Richard helped, they would say that it made all difference in the world to them.
When he was once asked, “Why do you help these people?” his response was “Because I want to. It is what I choose to do.” It’s interesting to me that when Jesus describes the service to God, he describes it using almost exactly the same words. “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves (or servants if that goes down easier for you); we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
The common and the every day make up not only our lives of service as people of faith, but the very elements of the sacraments, themselves. They are as represented by the bread and the cup as they are by the ordinary people whom Jesus called out of the boats to follow him just like you or me. When we gather together at the Table, we remember that Jesus has called us out of boats of our own.
This morning is World Communion Sunday when ordinary Christians just like us from all around the world gather around that same Table and proclaim that we are not discouraged and that we are not alone. For when God’s redeeming purpose in the world is enacted through the common act of kindness, through the offering of hospitality, through humble acts of service, and, indeed, through the breaking of bread and drinking of this cup, the Gospel is proclaimed. Friends, this common table for God’s common people is the feast of our Lord, and all is prepared. Come, eat, and drink with all who share the feast.
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Back in 2011, Bill Gates and a number of the other major billionaires like Warren Buffet and Michael Bloomberg made the news by committing to give as much as half their wealth away to philanthropy either during their lifetime or upon the occasion of their death. This made headlines, for one thing, because it marked a remarkable commitment from those among us who have the most wealth to use that wealth responsibly and intentionally to help serve the greater community.
However, it also made the news because of how notably rare this is in our society. According to Forbes Magazine and a study conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the percentage of income that the wealthiest Americans donated to charity dropped by nearly 5% between 2006 and 2012.
That same year, a report released by The Atlantic stated that the wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income while the poorest donate 3.2 percent. The fact of the matter, according to reports like these, is that statistically, year after year after year, the higher we go up in the income bracket, the lower the percentage of income we see given away.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Biblical scribes made similar observations in their communities as well. In fact, the Bible spends more time talking about wealth and inequality than almost anything else. It’s a huge theme for Luke in the Gospel and in the book of Acts. In Luke’s Gospel this morning, Jesus tells the story of a poor man, Lazarus, who is carried away by heavenly angels into the bosom of Abraham and a rich man who is given a one-way ticket on the bullet train to Hades.
It’s important to understand a little bit of context about why Jesus is telling this story. A few verses earlier, Jesus tells his disciples the parable of the dishonest manager, which ends with the phrase, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13). The Pharisees scoffed at this. “The Pharisees,” verses 14 and 15 say, “who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You…justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts…what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’”
I’ve never considered myself to be particularly “wealthy” per se, but compared to people living in other parts of the world, I live a very comfortable life. I have a home. I have food to eat. I have access to clean water. Compared to a larger global perspective, I’m a pretty wealthy person, all things considered.
So, the danger here for people like us that I think Jesus is getting at in stories like this is not so much that money is, in and of itself, evil or sinful. However, what things like wealth, privilege, and comfort do have a tendency to do is insulate. The wealthier we are, the more susceptible we are to become insulated from the needs of our neighbor and to feel less personal empathy for those around us who need it the most. That’s why stories of billionaires like Bill Gates giving away half their money are so amazing to us and make the national news. They are the exception rather than the rule.
We get a glimpse of this in Jesus’ story. What I think is so interesting is that even in death, the character of this rich man still imagines that he can order this guy around. He still treats Lazarus like a servant. “These flames are killing me. Send Lazarus to fetch me some water!” In life, the only reason he may have felt like he was able to order someone like him around like that was because of how much money he had or because of his social status. Well, that wealth is gone now. He’s dead. They’re both dead.
And yet, even in death he still can’t bring himself to see this man as his equal. Even after his wealth and social status have both withered to dust, he still can’t bring himself to see Lazarus as anything other than a subordinate. That’s how powerful these psychological processes are. Jesus even takes the parable a step further. When Abraham calls him out on it and actually points this out to him, the rich man repents of the error of his ways and apologizes profusely - and then he immediately does it again!
“Oh, my God, Abraham. You’re so right, but maybe it’s not too late for my brothers to learn from my mistakes. Someone needs to warn them. Can you send Lazarus down to my house and to my house and have him do that for me? Thank you so much. Be sure to tip him well for me.” I don’t think he even realizes that he’s doing it.
I love Abraham’s response. “You don’t need a dead guy to go down there and warn them. For generation after generation after generation, the Bible has been warning you about this stuff. Moses warned you. The prophets warned you. If you haven’t gotten the memo by now, then you probably never will.”
And the man says, “No, no, no! They’ll get the memo! They’ll get the memo! I promise!” Even though he clearly still hasn’t. And he’s talking to a dead guy! Jesus ends the story with these words, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” What an ominous and cautionary tale for all of us. Like the story of Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” the story is a challenge for all of us to break the cycle.
So, how do we go about doing that? During that same article from The Atlantic, Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, made an interesting observation. In a series of controlled experiments, when members of the wealthier group were able to put faces to the names of those who were in need – whether it was by watching a sympathy-eliciting video or (perhaps even better) by meeting and being able to actually get to know people living in poverty, the expressions of empathy and compassion among those within the group began to rise.
We see this happen sometimes when a politician who for a long time has been staunchly anti-gay suddenly discovers that a daughter, or a brother, or a family member is gay, and we see them begin to change their tune. Suddenly, the issue becomes personal. Suddenly, issues like these are no longer intellectual and abstract but intimate and personal, deeply impacting people we know, and love, and care about. It seems to me that if the spiritual illness is isolation and insulation, then Jesus’ spiritual prescription is contact, relationship, and exposure.
It reminded a bit of when the Women’s Gathering group of this church made the decision a few years ago to partner with an organization known as Margaret House a few years back, a ministry for women transitioning out of prison and abusive situations. It was one thing to understand intellectually why doing something like was a good idea, but it was another thing entirely to hear the stories firsthand from the individuals who were directly involved with this ministry. To see their faces, hear their voices, to know their names, and to hear their stories completely changed the conversation. It changed the tone of the conversation. It changed the urgency of the mission. It was a step outside of isolation and insulation and in the direction of contact, relationship, and ultimately action and response.
But a first step is not the end of the journey. It is just the beginning. This weekend, as I was attending a gathering of ministers and clerks within our presbytery to have our session minutes reviewed, our Transitional Stated Clerk, the Rev. Dr. Wayne Yost paraphrased a famous quote from John Shedd: “A boat that is only ever tied to the dock may look very nice, but it is not doing what it was made to do. We were made to be sent.” We were made to be people of contact. We were made to be people of relationship with the least of these, and we were made to be people of faithful discipleship in grateful response.
This year as we make our way into the fall, I would encourage our session, I would encourage our committees, and I would encourage all of us to imagine even more radical ways that we can step outside of our comfort zones and into direct contact and relationship with those who are privileged differently from us.
This is our mission because the company of our Lord Jesus Christ is in the company of the stranger. These relationships may push us and even challenge us, but they may also create space where we might learn and grow. The warning of Jesus’ parable, I fear, is that a spirituality that is unwilling, unable, and refuses to sit at table with the least of these and to see their humanity as equal children of God may be no better off than that of a rich man crying out in Hades. However, if we devote ourselves and commit ourselves to the company of the stranger, the foreigner, the poorest of the poor, and the least of these like Lazarus then the direction of our lives may very well be pointed in the direction of the bosom of Abraham, indeed.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Jeremiah 32: 1-3a, 6-15
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Zedekiah had said, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it;”
Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.”
Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.
In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
During the last semester of my senior year of college, most of the students in my media production major applied for an internship program that our college offered in Los Angeles. Using their alumni network, many rising graduates were plugged into internships in L.A. to help get their foot in the door once they got their diploma. One friend of mine spent his last semester in college as Sam Raimi’s projectionist while he was editing Spider-Man 3. Another delivered coffee for Will Smith’s office. You get the idea.
Whether these internships led to fame and fortune or not, they provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and most students took full advantage of it except for the rare weirdo who would opt to walk away from all of that and enter into something like the seminary instead…but that’s another story.
During this time, I had a guidance counselor in the midst of this process who used to tell kind of a corny joke. “Well, if you’re going to move, just be sure to rent, don’t buy!” This was a reference to the fact that California lies along the San Andreas Fault, which makes cities like L.A. particularly prone to earthquakes, and any moment could be “the Big One:” a devastating hypothetical 8.0 or greater on the Richter scale. Houses everywhere would collapse. Food, water, and electricity could be cut off. California, itself, would break apart from the rest of the United States and sink into the Pacific Ocean forever.
Or, at least, that’s what my guidance counselor seemed to think. It was a corny joke, but if my guidance counselor thought buying a house in California was a bad idea, Jeremiah’s scheme in this morning’s Scripture passage would have struck her as completely loony tunes.
The Scripture passage begins with the following words: “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar.” I’ll be honest with you. I have a tendency to want to skip over chronological gobbledygook like this in the Bible. Maybe it’s that attention deficit thing I’ve go. However, I noticed something in that gobbledygook this week.
The eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar puts this story at right around 588 B.C.E. Now, if you’re a history buff, that year ought to make the lights on your dashboard start blinking because that is one year before the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem for the second time in 587. Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Temple, believed to be the very dwelling place of God, was utterly annihilated. Children had been slaughtered. The king had been blinded. This is an enormous crisis of faith because 587 B.C. is the year that Israel began to wonder if they were still God’s chosen people or if God had abandoned them.
Jeremiah has spent the first half of this book warning them that this would happen. Chastising Israel and radically calling attention to things that they don’t want to hear. His own king even tried to intimidate him, put him under house arrest, and tried to shut him up. “Why are you doing this?” Zedekiah asks, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it?” Why don’t you just zip it?
Because Jeremiah’s words are painful, and kings generally don’t like being given painful news. Kings often surround themselves with Yes Men who stroke their egos and tell them exactly what they want to hear instead. We don’t like hearing the news if it hurts. We don’t like hearing the news when it’s painful, but there is a difference between painful and hopeless. Anyone who has ever been an athlete or anyone who has ever gone through rehab after a particularly extensive surgery knows that the pain does not have the final word.
Jeremiah does not believe that this tragedy has the last word either. After spending half of a book of the Bible lecturing to the king and to everybody else about how this will only end badly for them, Jeremiah then tells the king that God has also given him some instructions: “It’s time to buy some land!”
Buy land?! The whole country is falling apart. Why on earth would you want to buy land now? Because Jeremiah is thinking long-term. Or more specifically, God is thinking long-term. Really long-term. Eternally long-term. While the future may hold tragedy for Jeremiah and his country, it is not the only future. It is not God’s ultimate future.
In the bigger picture, God is still holding all the cards. The real future is that one day when even the greatest kings and fiercest politicians have faded into history, when even the strongest of nations is no more, that when even the greatest of empires has withered to dust, the truth of God will still remain. The future that Jeremiah is investing in is a future that promises that the grass withers, and the flower fades, the Word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8).
I love that just because Jeremiah believes in that future, that doesn’t mean that he just waits around for it to show up one day. He actively, visibly instigates it. He makes two copies of the deed: a visible copy that can be looked at for reference in the immediate future and a closed copy “put…in an earthenware jar,” as he says, “…that they may last for a long time.”
The only reason that anyone would do this would be so that future generations can preserve and maintain it, which means that even in the midst of all of this chaos, Jeremiah is still publicly banking on the idea that there are going to be future generations in the first place. Frank M. Yamada, Director of the Center for Asian American Ministries at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago writes:
“Today's passage reminds us God is invested in the future destiny of humankind. Even when catastrophe was imminent, Jeremiah made an audacious…act, symbolizing God's declaration that judgment and destruction would not have the final word…God's people would be restored and would again thrive in the land…[Through a symbolic act,] the prophet…activates the future in the present...”
It makes me wonder what it looks like to activate the future in the present in neighborhoods like ours. This week, my friend, Nate, and his family are moving out of their home that they have lived in for over a decade to move into a poorer neighborhood in South Atlanta.
As we were talking about this weekend, Nate shared with me that when some members of his family saw the neighborhood that they are choosing to move into, they would ask why they were moving into what they described as “the ghetto?” Nate’s response to me was because he and his family believe it is important to invest in the community, just like Seville invests in its community. “Regardless of what others see in it,” he said, “it is the church's job to invest in the things that others see no reason to.”
It made me remember another story that many of you have heard me tell before of a pastor who had been called to do ministry in the inner city. “Over the…last five to six years of the work that I’m doing,” he said, “my home has been shot into twice...”
One morning, he and his wife awoke to discover that one of the bullets had been fired through the window within twelve inches of his son’s head where he had been sleeping. That morning, he said, “Sweetheart, it’s your call. If you say we’re outta here, we pack up today. What do you think we should do?” His wife turned to him and said, “I believe that God has called us to this place to do this thing for this season.”
“We had a very deep sense as we prayed together that God had called us…because even though we may never see this community fully turn around in our lifetime, we have a promise, and we have a decision to make…through the work that God is doing through this ministry, a people can come into existence…that is why we do it…the hope that even in a neighborhood as desolated as this, God’s people can come into existence.”
I believe Jeremiah shared that same hope that even in a moment of history as desolate as his own, God’s people could come into existence. When Jeremiah decides to double down and invest in that land even when it seems crazy to everybody else, he activates the future. When Nate and his family move intentionally into a neighborhood where they believe they can help make a difference, they activate the future. And when that family chose to stay even in a neighborhood as dangerous as that because they believed in a future that belonged to God, they activate the future.
“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” I think it’s really interesting that Jeremiah that uses language like plants and vineyards. It reminds me of an old Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old [men and women] plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” What trees will we plant here at Seville Presbyterian Church? What earthenware jars will we create for future generations to come? What future will you activate today?
To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Ever since I started serving as your pastor, Linda Wagner has always had one thing to say to me. Linda has been begging me for years now to incorporate the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” into a sermon. Now, I don’t normally take requests like that. However, Linda, today is your lucky day. Monty Python, for those of you who don’t know, is a British comedy troupe, and their film, “The Holy Grail” is a satire. A ridiculous send-up of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table filled with quotable lines and memorable scenes.
One of my favorite moments in the movie comes at the very beginning when Arthur and his knights are given their mission from God to find the Holy Grail in a form of a cheaply animated cartoon figure up in the clouds. “Arthur,” God says, “King of the Britons, your Knights of the Round Table shall have a task to make them an example in these times.”
Arthur says, “Good idea, O Lord!” to which God responds, “Of course it’s a good idea!” The reason why this line is so funny is because it plays with ways that many of us have been taught to think about God. Of course it’s a good idea! It’s God. Why wouldn’t it be? God is perfect, immutable, and unchanging.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the idea that God came up with was actually frightening or disturbing? Last Sunday, many of you may remember that the lectionary has been doubling down pretty hard over the last several weeks on the theme of idolatry, and this Sunday is no exception. The story of the golden calf may be one of the most well-known stories about idolatry in all of Scripture. God has brought the Israelites out of slavery from the hands of Pharaoh in Egypt. God has saved them from the Pharaoh’s army and has been feeding them and sustaining them with manna and with quail in the desert.
But even though God’s followers have been liberated and given food, they are anxious! They don’t know how much longer they’re going to have to keep wandering in the desert, and one of the most central flaws in our human condition is our capacity to allow uncertainty to breed anxiety. So, they make an idol, which as many of us know, is the number two thing on God’s top ten list of things you don’t do! No gods before me, and no idols! (Exodus 20:1-4)
God is livid! God is fed up. God is tired of the nonsense and the shenanigans. He is on the warpath and says, “Moses, I am going to destroy these people. I’m going to wipe them out, and you and I are going to go to presbytery and start a new congregation together. We will build a great nation just you and me, Moses. What do you say?”
This is the moment where Moses could have very well said, “Good idea, Lord!” and that could have been the end of the story. We would have had a very different Old Testament if that had happened. But Moses doesn’t say that because deep down in Moses’ heart, he knows that this isn’t a good idea. The future of the Old Testament, the future of the covenant, perhaps the future of an entire faith tradition rests on how Moses is going to respond to the Commander in Chief.
In one of the most extraordinary moments in all of Scripture, Moses says, “Stop!” Moses reminds God of what’s important. “God, these are your people. Your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt. You have saved and delivered these people.”
And then Moses hits God where it really hurts. Moses goes for the jugular and says, “Do you really want Pharaoh to hear about this? After all that humiliation, after all those plagues, after going to all that trouble to free these people and to show Pharaoh who’s boss, do you really want him to find out that this all fell apart out here in the desert? That this whole thing turned out to be much for you to handle, and you wound up killing them all in the end?” Moses says, “Remember your covenant.”
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants…you swore to them by your own self….’
Incredibly, Moses looks directly into the heart of God and the Lord changed his mind. Moses causes the heart of God to change. “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
I’m not going to lie. The idea that God could go back and forth about something this serious or that God could be influenced by a human being rather than the other way around terrifies me. On the list of theological discussions or questions that would keep me up at night or that I would much rather avoid, this is right up there near the top of the list for me.
However, this week, Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, said something about this text that I thought was very interesting by pointing out that in a way, “God both changes and doesn’t change.” God made a covenant with Abraham and with Isaac, and in this moment God is tempted with the possibility of breaking that covenant. But then God remembers what that covenant means. God remembers why it was so important, and in the end, ultimately, God decides not to change.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the image of Jesus this week in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, himself, considers the possibility of having the cup taken away from him. Jesus considers the possibility of bailing on this new covenant – of bailing on this whole thing - and not unlike the book of Exodus, there’s a lot riding on it. Jesus experiences this temptation in the fullest way that a human being can, and yet ultimately Jesus decides not to change. Jesus decides to go through with it.
I’ve always been oddly comforted by the idea that even Jesus could understand and experience temptation. It reminds that Jesus was human. That Jesus has been where we have been and has known what we have known. As I thought about this some more this week, there was something oddly comforting about the idea that even before Jesus, God has been there, too. God understands what it means to be human. To feel pain, to feel anger, to mourn, to grieve, and to cry out. But even still, even in that moment, God does not break God’s covenant. Even then, God does not abandon us.
Part of what gives a covenant its value is the fact that a covenant is a choice. It is an arrangement or relationship where all parties involved are mutually at risk and in some way vulnerable to the choices of the others participating in that covenant. The witness of our faith is that God has chosen to keep God’s covenant with us even when we are not able to keep that covenant, ourselves.
And so as people made in the image of God who has known the fullness of what it means to be, we are also called to live in covenant with one another. We may be a small church here at Seville, but we are a family church. Like any family, there are times when we get along with one another harmoniously, and like any family, there are times when we really get on each other’s nerves. Yet time and time again, we see this congregation family stick together, hold each other up, support each other, and love one another fiercely even during challenging times - through good times and bad.
A friend of mine recently told me that for her, marriage is the first image that comes to her mind when she thinks of a covenant. She said, “If you talk to someone who has been married for twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years, you hear is that each of the people in the relationship has changed, and so the marriage has to change in order to keep the covenant. It’s a choice to stay married, to stay in that relationship, to stay in the covenant, and it’s not always easy. It’s hard work.”
Can you remember a time when someone hung in there with you when it wasn’t easy? When you needed them the most? In the seasons of your life when you might have been a difficult person to be in relationship with? I can. That describes most of my twenties! Maybe that person is sitting right here in this room this morning. When we do this, we reaffirm that we are covenant people made in the image of God.
A few weeks ago, during a recent Christian Ed meeting, one of our mothers shared with us that she had recently asked her daughter if she would ever want to try a different church. Maybe a church that had larger facilities, bigger programs, or less drama. She told us that her daughter’s response was, “No, Mom, I couldn’t see myself going anywhere else. This is my church. This is my family.” And then she said, “These are my people.”
Friends, the truth of the matter is that we are God’s people, and God’s covenant will last forever. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.
Rev. Marc van Bulck
Seville Presbyterian Church
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?
Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Many of you have heard me tell this story from the pulpit before. When I was a teenager, I took acting lessons at the Sumter Little Theater. Our acting classes were taught by a woman named Katie. Katie was raised in the mountains of Kentucky and moved to my small, southern hometown of Sumter, South Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. My mother once told me that Katie’s family became one of the first to let white children and black children play together in the same backyard when her kids were growing up.
When the neighbors found out, it became the local scandal. My mom told me that she could remember overhearing conversations like, “Well, you know the kind of neighborhood she lives in, don’t you? It’s not exactly the wrong side of town, but it’s close enough. I wouldn’t leave my children alone in that house.”
When other young mothers would offer to bring their children over for play dates, their own mothers would be horrified. “You can’t let your children play there! With those kids? In that neighborhood?!”
At one point, my mom had a similar conversation with her own mother. “Mother, the times are changing. We can’t just keep teaching our children to live in fear just because of the color of someone’s skin.”
And her reply was, “I’m your mother. Those are my grandchildren. I will not allow you to put them at risk!” I asked my mom recently what it was exactly about the area that made all of these parents feel so worried. Mom rolled her eyes and said, “Marc, it had nothing to do with the area. None of this had anything to do with being on the wrong side of town. It was because they were black.” I’ve asked my mom before why she felt conversations like these with her mother were so important, one of the responses I have heard her say is “I just didn’t think it was very Christian.”
This story was a long time ago, but stories like these are not unfamiliar to us because the truth of the matter is that we all have stories like these in our own families even today. What do we do when the values of our family or our friends, come into conflict with what we believe to be the values of our faith? What do we do?
Unfortunately, that is exactly the question that passages like these force us onto the table. It’s also an ancient question. In the first century, in Jewish culture, the family was absolutely central. If someone in your family were to pursue interests that detracted from family responsibilities, there were real consequences. Families were patriarchal. If you were a wife or a child, you were a second-class citizen. If a patriarch was no longer present with the family or died, many women and children were moved to the outskirts of society and abandoned by their community. This probably explains why so many of Jesus’ followers were reported to have been single. Or women. Or both.
Likewise, many family members shared the same family occupation. If your father was a carpenter for example, you were probably going to be a carpenter, too, and carry on the family business. However, if one of you suddenly decided to uproot and follow someone who strolled into town saying things like “I will make you fish for people,” that could threaten the family business and throw your primary source of income into jeopardy. What does that discussion at the dinner table look like, I wonder?
This passage comes at a very interesting moment in Jesus’ ministry. For five chapters now, Jesus has been making his way towards Jerusalem and is actively moving towards the cross. Towards what he knows will be his own death. Verse twenty-five tells us that at this point, Jesus’ preaching has been drawing massive crowds.
But Jesus is concerned. These people hear all these wonderful things about the kingdom and blessing, so of course they want to follow someone who offers things like that, but Jesus seems a little worried that they’re not quite getting it. They’re not quite hearing what he’s saying. They don’t seem to full grasp, to fully appreciate the cost of what he’s talking about.
So, finally, Jesus decides that he’s had enough. He’s not messing around anymore. It’s time to decide who’s really in and who’s just hanging out. He turns and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
While most churches would be popping open the champagne bottles at the thought of attracting these kinds of numbers, Jesus appears to be thinning the herd. He is moving towards his own death, and if following him means following even into the shadow of the cross, he wants people who mean it.
Now, a lot of preachers and commentators try to explain this passage away a little bit by saying that “Jesus probably didn’t really mean it. He’s using hyperbole. He’s exaggerating. He’s using shocking and provocative language to grab their attention. It’s a wake up call.”
That may be true, but I also think there’s more. The Greek word here in Luke is “miseo.” Luke is writing in Greek. Jesus is speaking in Aramaic, and that word likely comes a Hebrew idiom found a few times in the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy, for example, the Hebrew word for “hate” is often used in family systems. It was used to describe who among the kids was going to be chosen to receive the lesser inheritance. The word was sort of euphemism that was less about extreme negative feelings and more about favor, loyalty, and blessing.
Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate…even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Now, I seriously doubt that someone who spent so much of his ministry giving and restoring life to those who around him who had less of it as much as Jesus did “hated life itself” the way we understand that thought today. However, in the same way that a parent back in the Old Testament might choose which child would receive the greater inheritance, Jesus is also about to make a choice, himself, between faithfulness to God and the preservation of even his own life, itself. Where will his favor, loyalty, and allegiance ultimately lie in the end?
Jesus is also turning to the people who are following him and saying, “You might have to make choices like that, too. There is a cost to this life. There may be a cost to your family. There may be a cost to your feelings of allegiance to Caesar. You may even find yourself crucified.” And, indeed, one day many of them will be.
“This is the deal,” Jesus says, “You can take it or leave it, but I’m not going to sugar coat it. I’m not going to soften it up, and I’m not going to lie to you. This is the way it is. Now, look. You wouldn’t build a tower without first knowing what it would cost to build it. You wouldn’t go to war if you didn’t think you had enough soldiers. And if this sort of thing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you should probably think carefully about following me.”
As I’ve been reading the lectionary over the last several weeks, I have noticed that this theme of what it costs to follow God has been coming up over and over again. The lectionary has been doubling down pretty hard over the last month or so on the questions of what is following God and what is following something else – or to put it another way, what is idolatry and what is not.
For the Jews living in Jesus’ day, the cost of following Jesus was real and had a real impact on their lives. When my mother says, “I just didn’t think it was very Christian,” she is remembering difficult conversations with her own mother, she is reminded that the cost of following Jesus was very real for her and her family, too. However, if my mom had silently decided that keeping her mother happy was more important than the justice for these kids for the sake of the Gospel, that would have been a form of idolatry.
If our political parties espouse values that subvert and undermine the Gospel, but we choose turn and look the other way anyway, deciding that their well-being is more important, that is a form of idolatry. If we espouse values such as “putting the Christ back in Christmas,” but when the rubber hits the road, we actually find ourselves spending more money on materialism and consumerism than feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, and the notion of reversing the two would seem unthinkable, then guess what? That is a form of idolatry.
Even if Jesus’ words about our families and our possessions are exaggerated speech meant to shock us, to wake us up, and grab our attention rather than literal commands to go run out and go sell the house, the fact that these forces in our lives have so much power over us should still give us pause. Maybe that’s worth being shocked over. Maybe that’s worth being woken up to, and maybe that’s worth our attention.
The bad news is that in the light of this text and others like it, all of us are guilty here. You and me both. None of us can say that we have lived up to the standard of Jesus. The Good News, however, is that Jesus already has. When the burden of following Jesus even into the shadow of the cross has been too much for us, the shadow has not proven to be too much for him. Jesus did abandon family, possessions, safety, and even life itself on the cross for the sake of faithfulness, and the Easter promise is that Jesus has overcome the shadow. And even still, Jesus embraces us. Jesus claims us. And even still, Jesus extends the invitation to follow him.
So, the question, friends, is “Where does that leave us?” Will we allow ourselves to be changed by this man from Nazareth? Will we allow his words to shock us, to wake us up, and even threaten to change us? Can we be brave enough to admit and own up to the idols that we have in our own lives? Not for the purposes of feeling guilty or feeling awful about ourselves, but for the purposes of being honest? Of being real? And maybe for the purposes of even taking some first steps to change some of that? If we are, if we can do that then I believe that we really are well on our way. I believe those really are the kinds of people Jesus called to follow him down that road, and if we can be open to that and transformed by that, then I believe that really is Good News.
May it be so. To God be the glory now and forever. Amen.