Sunday, November 18, 2012

Opposite the Temple

Opposite the Temple
Mark 13:1-8
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 18, 2012
When Mark wrote that, following his foray to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Jesus sat “opposite the Temple” on the mount of Olives, he was describing not only what was – and is – literally true. The Mount of Olives was, and still is, opposite the Temple mount, the one is across a small valley, the Kidron valley, from the other. They are two hillsides facing one another, the Mount of Olives standing actually somewhat higher. In a way it is similar to the fact that, for years, the Presbyterian church I once served in Salem stood where the Labor and Industries building stands today in the same sort of relationship to the capitol building: “the Presbyterian church opposite the capitol,” though we might not have phrased it that way. Mark wrote these words as a similar description of a location, but also more than that.
Mark was describing what, in a few years, would also have been theologically true. The Temple was destroyed in the first century, never to be rebuilt. The mountain from which Jesus ascended, the Mount of Olives, stood opposite, representing a new truth about the way God could be worshipped. For generations, the people had worshiped God on the holiest site they knew, on the mount where a Temple had stood for generations, three different Temples, as a matter of fact:
·    First the much heralded Temple of Solomon which was destroyed by the Babylonians;
·    Then the Temple built in the time after Israel’s exile in Babylon, the Temple of Zerubbabel;
·    Finally, in Jesus’ generation, it was a new Temple, which was begun under Herod, 20 years before Jesus’ birth and was not finished until after his crucifixion, made of massive stone blocks, huge stones, some the size of semitrailer trucks. Some of the hewn stones from that Temple form the foundations of the temple mount on which today the Mosque of Omar – the Dome of the Rock  – stands, part of those foundations are commonly called the “Wailing Wall.”
The sight of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was and remains one of the most spectacular views of the city, visited by virtually every tourist who travels there, and in Jesus’ day, it offered an unparalleled view of the magnificence of the Temple building, a building which, as Jesus spoke of it with his disciples, was a brand new structure. When they were visiting the city, Jesus had told them that the Temple, built of the massive stones that they could see before them, would be “thrown down.” Later on, they asked, understandably, from the elevated perspective of the Mount of Olives, “when will this be?” I’m sure they also wondered how this could be; anyone looking at those massive stones, that immense structure, might have wondered at Jesus’ words.
The Temple was enormous and opulent, a walk around its perimeter would have been about 2/3 of a mile. Its marble-clad walls were 150 feet high, and each block weighed many tons. Outside there were columns of 40 foot high marble. The outer courts were entered by ten different gates, each of which was covered in silver or gold plate. Records show that two of the doors stood 45 feet high, and the one famously called “Beautiful Gate” in Acts[1] was cast of bronze brought from Corinth in Greece. The eastern face of the Temple and parts of the side walls were plated in gold, which along with the white marble, caused the Temple to glow as if on fire in the rising sun of morning, much as the golden Dome of the Rock does today. But the Temple, unlike today’s much smaller mosque, completely dominated the mount visually, as well as the city around it.
Today we know that it was about 70 AD, some 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, when the unimaginable happened and the Roman legions came into an increasingly restive and rebellious Jerusalem to do just what Jesus had said they would do, tearing the Temple down to the extent that what remained amounted to little more than a pile of rocks. Then all Jews were barred from from Israel, from Jerusalem, and from the Temple grounds for about 19 centuries. These things he wanted them to understand as he sat on the little mountain “opposite the temple,” the Mount of Olives so well-known by Christians as a location where there was once a garden in which Jesus was betrayed, where nearby in Bethany there once had been the house of Mary and Martha, the location of some of Jesus’ most profound teaching, and where also there was a hilltop from which the disciples watched the resurrected Christ rise into the heavens. It became, in many ways, a new mount for believers, the old one with its Temple having been cast down without one stone remaining on another for about 2000 years now. The new place, the new mount was ultimately where faces looked toward heaven, opposite the lower hillside where downcast eyes revealed only the ruins of the old Temple.
The Temple had certainly been made of solid earthly stuff, as solid and expensive as could be found, but the deeper foundation which Jesus sought, as with the foundations of our own lives, was the foundation of deep faith. That is why anyone who heard Jesus’previous comment on a poor widow’s two half pennies placed in the Temple offering box being a gift greater than anyone else’s[2] would have caused building committee folks to scratch their heads in wonder. Tiny donations do not build immense, magnificent buildings. But they can reveal a deeper foundation than the foundations of buildings, a foundation of deep faith. Humility, service, commitment to the message Jesus brought will outlast columns of marble and doors plated with gold.
There must have been despair in the disciples’ hearts at the thought of a wrecked Temple, but there was to be a future hope on its way as well.
Bruce Larson once wrote that the neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to see in his church. It is an imitation, but a good one, dispensing spirits instead of the spirit, escape instead of what is really real, but one thing is true of such places as we used to see on the old 1980s TV series Cheers: it is a place with a fellowship that is permissive, accepting, and inclusive, where “everybody knows your name.” It is unshockable, democratic, and even confessional, a place where people often tell things to each other that they would never say anywhere else. Such places flourish not because people are alcoholics, though some are, but because we are created by God with a desire to make ourselves known, and to know others, to love and be loved. Probably Christ wants his church to be unshockable, democratic, a place where people can come in where “everybody knows their name” and say, “I’m sunk!” “I’m beat!” “I’ve had it!” Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and AlAnon have this desperately desired quality. Churches too often miss it.[3]
The qualities Christ seeks in us are not that we be builders of great temples or great fortunes or great reputations, but that we be builders of great fellowships where the lost the least and the last can come and find in one another the presence of Christ, opposite the Temple, standing with those who cannot stand alone.
Of course our reading begins with the words about the Temple, but continues with words about the last things, the final things, what scholars call “eschatology.” One of my friends once said that the word eschatology sounds like a medical term.[4] “How is your eschatology today?” But it’s not something measured on an blood test or electrocardiogram. Eschatology is talk about ultimate things, final judgment, and it is a topic that always appears in Gospel readings as we begin to approach the season of Advent. The four disciples who approached Jesus after his lesson at the Temple stood looking with him at the glittering, brand new Temple from the perspective of a hillside a half mile away, and were inspired to ask a question about last things, ultimate things.
Jesus responded with two points.
First, that there would be a multitude of religious pretenders coming their way who will claim to know not only the purpose of the world, but the finer points of God’s timing.  That was and still is the case. Jesus said to them and to us, “Many will come in my name ... and they will lead many astray.”
Second, religious pretenders notwithstanding, remember that no matter how solid it appears to be, neither this Temple, nor the good old earth itself is going to last forever. As one preacher put it, Jesus seems to be saying, “You never know, so live alertly, live expectantly, live now.”[5] We all know what it means to live in other ways so that we only see what our lives would have meant had we been paying attention:
·   Real life is not living at home and going to high school, real life comes when I get out of high school and go to college or get a job;
·   Real life isn’t this starting-level job, real life is when I get that promotion;
·   Real life isn’t being single, real life is when I find the right someone and get married;
·   Real life is going to start when we have some kids and are a family;
·   Real life will be when our two year-old is finally out of diapers and in school;
·   Real life is when our kids finally get off to college;
·   Real life is when the last tuition payment is made;
·   Real life is when I finally get my retirement;
·   Real life will be after I get that bypass surgery I need...
Author Annie Dillard put this point in the most concise and telling way I have ever heard. “How we spend our days,” she wrote, “is of course how we spend our lives.”
The “holiday season” – as our culture persists in referring to the coming 4 or 5 weeks from Thanksgiving through Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years – comes at many of us like a freight train on amphetimines. So much to do, shopping, greeting cards to send, parties to organize or attend. There is nothing wrong with all this, it’s just important to remember to stop and realize, as if Jesus stood beside us to say it, that one day none of these things we are attending to so frantically will remain. Not one will remain standing. Don’t go through the motions of these coming days, but live in them. Perhaps, as a friend of mine once said, this is the holiday when you may think about living enough in the precious moment God has provided to “tap your spoon on the water glass and look at one dear face or all the dear faces across the cranberry relish and say: ‘I’ve been meaning to say this for so long; I love you, and I thank God for you.’”[6]
I encourage you to do such things in the midst of this passing world you love, that is populated by people and places you love, in this church that we all love so much. And I do this myself as I say now to each of you, I love you, and I thank God for you.
In the name of the Triune God who loves us with such unfettered abandon. Amen.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Acts 3:2, 10.
[2] Mark 12:41-44
[3] Edge of Adventure, by Bruce Larson and Keith Miller.
[4] Michael Lindvall, in his sermon “The Real Thing,” preached at Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City, 11-16-03.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Avoiding the Sins of the Lips

Avoiding the Sins of the Lips
A Meditation for World Communion Sunday

Job 1:1, 2:1-10         

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time: October 7, 2012

We all hear Job’s name, and we connect it immediately with the biblical story of his abject suffering. Some questions come to my mind:
• Why read from such a book on World Communion Sunday, of all days?
• How is today’s service representative of “the world” gathered at the Lord’s table, and in particular…
• … how does Job’s story relate to the Lord’s Supper?
I reflected this week on the membership of the seven congregations I have served during my ordained ministry, and realized that I have been privileged to serve churches whose members were born in many different countries. Here are a few that came to my mind: The USA, of course, England, Scotland, Germany, Sierra Leon, Australia, Cayman Islands, Laos, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Holland, Palestine, and, of course, Texas. In a way, over the years, any time most congregations gather at the table, we literally celebrate “World Communion!”
As to my own question whether a reading from Job applies to today’s service: in recalling the suffering of Job, we should be sure to remember the suffering of Christ as well. If Job’s suffering was filled with questioning, Jesus’ suffering was filled with redemption – with the identification of God with the plight of suffering humanity.
The name “Job” calls to mind a few graphic images for most of us. The phrase, “the patience of Job,” is often used as a description of an especially long-suffering person. It is a cliché at best, a complete misrepresentation at worst. We could believe it to be an accurate characterization of Job only if we had never bothered to read the story, or had “grown weary after reading only the first two chapters.”[1] In the 42 chapters of this most unusual Old Testament book, Job comes across as anything but patient, especially following chapter 2. Like Tevya in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Job carries on an active debate with God.
Most people with even a passing understanding of Job know that it isn’t a book about patience, but that it has come to be synonymous with the human quest for purpose that lies in obvious and not-so-obvious ways in human suffering. Tom Long of Princeton Seminary once wrote,
“The story looks as though it may deliver something to feed our aching hunger to know why. When we summon the book to provide an answer, though, many readers are deeply dissatisfied, even aggrieved, with the result. The God who finally turns up near the end of the story appears to supply not an answer, but a swagger.”[2]
It is important to remember that Job is a story-teller’s story, meant to illustrate or teach. It will do no good to search through ancient maps looking for the land of Uz, any more than it would be helpful to look through Persian records for another Old Testament Jewish heroine named Esther. These chronicles are not offered by the biblical writers as history per se, they are theology and philosophy turned into stories we can understand through the lens of our own experiences.
When the generic Bible dictionary speaks of Job as one who encounters disaster with fortitude and faith, it is only partly accurate. Clearly there is fortitude, as demonstrated in Job’s determined answer to his wife that he would not curse God and die. In view of the suffering he endures in the story, that is quite a lot. But notice that by the end of chapter 2 it says only that “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Chapter 3 begins less auspiciously than chapter 2 ended:  “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.”
If Job was determined not to curse God with his lips, he apparently felt the terrifying need to curse something. How like most of humanity, that when he could not curse something in the world around him, he turned his curses on himself. It is a classic case of blaming the victim. Before his so-called friends could come and offer him the thin comfort of telling him his suffering must have arisen from some sinfulness in his life, he had already taken to heaping scorn on his own existence.
Why is this? I think it is because any suffering, and especially the suffering of innocents, brings to mind questions of the meaning of our existence. Job “persisted in his integrity,” but immediately he began to ask the “why” questions. If we believe that we were placed here for a purpose, suffering is the sort of experience that calls that sense of purpose into question in a dramatic way.
University of Chicago Divinity School professor Martin Marty once shared a story[3] from a Jesuit priest who told him that, on a visit to Mexico, he happened to observe young people coming to a cathedral on a Sunday morning. As each man approached the church doors he handed his wife or girlfriend through into the nave and then stood on the stairs outside smoking, occasionally looking in to see how things were coming along at the altar. This happened again and again until quite a crowd was assembled. Intrigued, the priest went down into the plaza.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
“Good morning, Father.”
“I see you escort the ladies to mass and then wait outside.”
“That’s right,” they said.
“You don’t go into the cathedral yourselves?”
“No, not generally.”
“Well, that’s puzzling. Aren’t you Catholics?”
The men looked at him in consternation.
“Of course we’re Catholics,” they said. “But we’re not fanatics.”
They were happy to carry the label of their faith but not its content or its action. Job was willing to carry the content of his faith, even when he no longer saw the sense of it, no longer wished to wear the label. He was willing to cling by a thread of faith, even when he was no longer sure where the other end of the thread was attached.
What drives us, and the rest of the Christian world, to the table on this or any Sunday? Fanaticism? Or perhaps it is nothing more than our desire to avoid the sins of the lips. Perhaps it is only that in the midst of life’s trials and vicissitudes, when we cannot see any trace of the plan or purpose of God, when we have nothing to offer others from our own spent resources, when our needs are so great and our means for meeting them seem so small, that on a day like that we want to have a way to declare that no matter what happens to shake our confidence, we have a means by which we can declare that we still believe. Nothing more than that, just a way of hanging on, of refusing to curse God and die, to say that no matter what lies ahead around curves we cannot see, we believe God’s unseen purpose lies there as well. And perhaps holding on to just that one thing will be enough to see us through. The observance of the Lord’s Supper is not an end in itself, but is a way of reminding believers just how intimately Christ is with us in all the moments of life. Christ is “the divine Son who has fully participated in our human existence and experienced the fullness of human suffering and brokenness.”[4]
With Christ, suffering no longer expresses our separation from God, but rather marks our solidarity with Christ, with God-become-human. In Christ our suffering is his own.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “There is nothing of which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of – do you want to know? You are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of enduring almost all possible mistreatment. But you do not wish to get to know this; no, you would become enraged at the person who would tell you this, and you regard as a friend only the one who will help you to confirm yourself in the idea [that you are] not capable of enduring, it is beyond [your] power.”
Sometimes enduring is beyond our power, true enough. But nothing is beyond the power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead for us. That is the promise we share as we move to the table of our Lord.

[1] “Job: Second Thoughts in the Land of Uz,” by Thomas Long,Theology Today, April, 1988, p. 5.
[2] Ibid., p. 6.
[3] In his little periodical, Context.
[4] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Pentecost, Year B, Soards et. al., Abingdon, 1993, pp. 78-79.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

With Gentle Good Works

With Gentle Good Works
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time 
Robert J. Elder, Pastor           
September 23, 2012            

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show by your good life
that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.

What do you suppose would characterize gentle good works? James suggests that they are works that are “born of wisdom.” But how is one to know when the good we do is “born of wisdom”? James suggests that there is one kind of wisdom that is earthbound, and another kind of wisdom that is “from above.” He knows that our spirits are at war within us because we have a desire for the things of the world, and the wisdom of the world teaches us to want – even to crave – these things. Yet it is through gentle works on behalf of others – works that set self aside in favor of the good of others – it is by this that we can live lives characterized by a different sort of wisdom, a wisdom from above.
James identifies two kinds of wisdom. We know what they both are, if we just stop for a moment to think about it. The first kind of wisdom is the kind with which we are entirely too familiar. It is what James thinks of as earthly wisdom, worldly wisdom. This is not a philosopher’s “straw man” wisdom, some obviously phony wisdom that James sets up for a fall from the beginning, like someone who is the obvious, scripted villain at a professional wrestling match, someone we know to jeer from the beginning. This is not something about which we can all nod our heads knowingly, having long since grown beyond it into fully mature Christian wisdom. James knows the reality of life in the world is never that simple and straightforward. He knows that conversion to the way of Christ requires conversion, turning, over and over again, time and again. It requires hundreds of little conversions from an earthbound existence which seems entirely too normal for us to see it unless we are given new, gospel glasses to see it for what it is. And even then, we often fail to see it. James knows this, and we do too.
James knows there is double-mindedness even among those who long to be the friends of God, followers of Christ. The wisdom of the world is not easy to avoid, much less abandon. A friend of mine once said that in today’s world, it is as if the radio station virtually everyone listens to has these for its call letters WIFM – “What’s In It for Me?” The percentage of Americans who consider themselves to be happy peaked somewhere in the 1950s, and has been decreasing ever since. In an era less threatened by nuclear destruction than in the 1950s, and more wealthy by anyone’s material measure, why is this so?
I grew up in Oklahoma, was just there July for a High School reunion after having been away for probably 25 years, and I had almost forgotten the reverence with which Will Rogers is still held there. Remember his brief thought on the self-justifying mental gymnastics we can do when it comes to the amount of money we think we need to be happy? He said, in his characteristically concise way, “Whenever someone says, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing,’ it’s the money!” We can be self-serving even when we try to fool ourselves into thinking we are not. About a dozen years ago, the late Meg Greenfield wrote in a Newsweek article that the most dangerous people in our world are not the ones who lust for money or sex, but the ones who lust for “greatness,” for power and influence, for notice by “history.” Some such people will subvert democracy, will destroy other people, and often are so singlemindedly dedicated to their cause that they cannot regard as truth anything that did not come from their own mouths.
This is “What’s in it for me” raised to a level that passes for worldly wisdom. It confronts us every day, and is seductive in part because it is so familiar, seems to be so true in its context. It is inscribed not only in the things we read, see on TV, and hear in conversation in the surrounding culture, but also because it is in our very hearts.[1] When we feel ambiguous about our faith, when some of the basic tenets of our faith strike us as “not realistic,” or “too lofty,” we can be sure we are being seduced by worldly wisdom, and James knows it is not easy to sluff it off. We must be converted to the wisdom of the ways of Christ over and over again, because there are so many times when we fail to see it as wisdom at all, and fall back on a more familiar, more earth-bound wisdom instead.
James declared that most of the difficulties within the fellowship of Christ, not to mention in the world at large, come from the conflict between our own internal cravings for things we do not have, and our higher, more altruistic, better nature. When our cravings for the material things of the world take over, we look into our spirits, sense an emptiness there, and presume that we can fill it with the goods we can obtain. James called this adultery, not in a sexual but in its theological sense, as a primary love for something other than God is always described in the Old and New Testaments, a love for other than the One to whom we have promised our devotion. The only way to fill our hearts by our own power is first to forsake the power and presence of God.
 “Complete consistency in life is not given by a first commitment. It is slowly and painfully won through many conversions.” This helps us better to understand “what James means by faith being tested through many trials (1:2-3), and why it should be counted as all joy when such trials occur. Each...test is a possibility for growth and new conversion from the measure of the world to the measure” of the kingdom.[2]
James demonstrates that envy leads directly toward murder, as, earlier, he had said that desire gives birth to sin; and when sin comes to full term it brings forth death (1:15). Modern American advertising culture is virtually chained to the logic of envy, by which you buy cottage cheese because you want slim legs like the model in the commercial, or a new Lexus because you want the girl in the commercial talking on the phone with her friend about her blind date to gaze, slack-jawed at you, as you step from the car. We live in a time in which “to be” seems almost synonymous with “to have,” and to have more means to be more, guaranteed to generate a “certain sorrow” when someone else has something that we do not, accompanied by the desire to do whatever is necessary to acquire what is not possessed. When children murder each other for a pair of athletic shoes or a team logo jacket, we see James words about envy leading to murder coming true with a vengeance, all in a culture of manufactured need to which we are blind most of the time.
The antidote to all this worldly wisdom is a wisdom that comes from above, and we begin to acquire this wisdom as we move toward doing works which give evidence of the things we say we believe. Gentle good works, the kind that do not require trumpet fanfares or award ceremonies or any notice at all. Gentle good works will never win the Nobel Prize, but they are the stuff of wisdom that comes from above.
The Martyred Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero, placed it in perspective for me in a prayer he wrote before he was murdered in his church by those who sought a more earthbound submission from him:
A Prayer of Archbishop Romero[3]
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
    The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
    it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
    which is another way of saying that
    the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that should be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection,
    no pastoral visit brings wholeness,
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
    knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything.
    and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
    and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
    but it is a beginning,
    a step along the way,
    an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter 
       and to do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
    but that is the difference
    between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
    ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future that is not our own.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder

[1] New Interpreters’ Bible, Abingdon, p. 212.
[2] New Interpreters’ Bible, Abingdon, p. 212-213.
[3] Source: Bottom Drawer meeting Note 3242 by Max Glenn on

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Look One Way, Speak Another

Look One Way, Speak Another

Mark 8:27-38            
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 16, 2012

There is probably only one sure way to approach an understanding of this reading from Mark, and that is to take it one step at a time, almost living through it phrase by phrase, as the disciples themselves had to do. To skip too quickly to the end is to miss the startling points that Jesus addressed to those with whom he ultimately entrusted the continuation of his ministry.
To start with, the geography of the passage shouldn’t be overlooked. Jesus and the 12 had marched through his healing ministry and up to the villages of Caesarea Philippi, which were located in the foothills of Mount Hermon (now in the present-day Golan Heights, just a few miles from the Lebanese border). From this elevated perspective, they could look back toward the South, over the region of Galilee and beyond the horizon toward Jerusalem. Here Jesus invited his disciples to take a figurative look back over the Galilean ministry and ahead to Jerusalem.
Jesus’ discussion with his disciples was really a matter of answering three questions, and then determining what the answers implied for living in this life as disciples. Jesus asked all three questions, and the second two build upon the foundation provided by the first. “Who do others say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” and finally – although he didn’t really say it this way – his words answered a third question, “Who do I say that I am?”


First, Who do others say that I am? Jesus was not the first nor the last religious figure to ask questions about public opinion. In fact, it’s fair to say that some modern religious figures are a bit overly-concerned about it. For instance, some of us may remember the emergence of the so-called ‘moral majority’ back in the 1980s – whatever happened to that idea? ­– a name that implied that numerical superiority in some way blesses this or that religious opinion. In fact, the name never really was even close to being true, only a single digit percentage of the general population ever claimed any affiliation, far from a majority. But somehow just saying it seemed to make it so. A series of exposés about the organization led to its downfall by the middle of the 1980s.
Some might say, “But who would listen to a religious minority?” The historical answer has been, plenty of folks. The church started with 12 people who held a minority opinion in a minority culture in the middle of an ancient Roman civilization that really represented a minority of the world’s population then as now. There is more to be said for holding the minority view than we usually admit. Jesus asked the question, not to go begging after public approval, but to begin to help the disciples learn who he was.
Jesus had raised the question so inescapably that even ... ordinary people, people who made no pretense of being disciples – had found themselves not only asking it, but forced to admit that Jesus must be some great figure indeed, John the Baptist or one of the great prophets risen from the dead.[1]
People all around the disciples were answering the question before it was asked. Jesus was doing things that demanded an answer, and the likely explanation presented itself to a people who had lived in expectation of a Messiah for centuries. They began saying that this must be the forerunner of the one for whom they had waited. Probably they all had varying images of who the Messiah was to be, and since Jesus did not fit those images exactly, they thought he might be the Master of Ceremonies, the one who would make the introductions. A Messiah who has not yet come leaves our preconceptions intact, makes no demands on us. But a present Messiah we could find disturbing, because a Messiah who is already here would call for an altered image, an altered view of who we are and what we should be doing about it. We would have to begin to change our comfortable patterns: much easier to continue the wait than to give in and begin to follow.


Jesus’ first question inevitably led to the next, just as surely as “Don’t you just love the leather seats in this car?” leads to, “and which payment plan do you prefer?” Jesus knew what some of those plain folks were saying about him. He wanted to know if the disciples had heard it. They had. So he put the next question to them. “Who do you say that I am ?”
Now the disciples hadn’t been asleep during the ministry of Jesus, and they knew that there was more to him than the ordinary bumpkin in Galilee would have guessed. Peter spoke for them all when he said that Jesus was the Christ, Christos, the Greek word for Messiah. Then the interesting thing happened. Instead of slapping him on the back and giving him a cigar for arriving at the right answer, Jesus commanded them to silence. And when he next referred to himself, he did not call himself “Christ” or “Messiah,” but went back to that mysterious title he seemed to prefer, “Son of man.” Why? Because of what was yet to come. Jesus cannot be appropriately understood apart from the cross and his suffering on our behalf, and the disciples, as yet, knew nothing of this. When they called him Christ, Jesus knew that they had no idea what they were saying. So he began to tell them. And it was a beginning that took the rest of his ministry for them to understand.
Through almost 8 chapters in Mark, Jesus’ power and authority had been emphasized. In this story, Jesus shifted the emphasis. From here to the cross, his suffering and death would receive all the attention. It was not an emphasis that the disciples enjoyed any more than our culture does, which is demonstrated every Spring when tiny Good Friday services are followed by extra large services on Easter Sunday. But Jesus’ warning is clear to all: the way of the Christ, before it can be the way of resurrection and life, must be the way of suffering, rejection, and death. A handful of people at a Good Friday service are closer to an appreciation of it all than hundreds crowding the pews at Easter.
Jesus had to suffer because his understanding of the will of God ran counter to that of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, the members of the governing councils, the Pharisees, the scribes, the television preachers, the denominational authorities, almost everyone with a stake in seeing the religious life of Israel remain as it had for hundreds of years. What is ironic is that it also ran counter to Peter who, acting on behalf of all the disciples, “took him” – the word implies an assumption of authority – as one would “take” a naughty child from the room for discipline. Then he “rebuked him.” In a word, Peter called him down as Jesus had called down the demons in his healing ministry.

That action forced the asking of the 3rd question. “Who do I say that I am?” The real issue at that moment was, as it is today: Who is in charge? If we call Jesus the Christ, we give up the right to define for him what that name means. We hand him the authority to name himself. Peter tried to behave like the big shot who gives his money away to endow some showy thing or other and then raises a fit if his name isn’t engraved at the top of the program for the annual meeting. Peter acted more like a patron than a disciple. Like us, he wanted to do what God himself would do if only God were in full possession of the facts.
Through Peter, Satan tempted Jesus to think that God’s anointed one could avoid suffering, rejection, and death; that God’s rule can mean power without pain, glory without humiliation, election without service. Satan’s agent in this tempting pattern of thought was Peter, whose thinking was human, perfectly understandable, a devilishly good idea. But wrong.[2]
The task of discipleship is not to guide, protect, or possess Jesus, but to follow him. Answering “Who do you say that I am” we must eventually ask what his being the Christ means for our discipleship.
Peter, for all his brashness and faults, was out ahead of most of us. He could begin to see the writing on the wall. If Jesus was the Christ, and if they were his disciples, and if even the Christ was going to be called on to suffer, to give up his life so that others might have life, well what would that mean for his followers? Could they be called upon to do less? He could see coming what Jesus was about to say, and he tried to block him. But Jesus would not be deterred from his faithfulness to his calling. And so, the inevitable logic of what they had been hearing bore fruit in Jesus’ next statement, which was made not only to the disciples, but to the multitude and, ultimately, across the centuries to us: “If any would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me.”
This statement might strike us as familiar, but it ought never to lose its impact for a people accustomed to humming along when Frank Sinatra sang, “I did it myyyyy waaaaay.” What statement of autonomy is more familiar to a parent experiencing the fresh grief of an empty nest than a child’s declaration: “It’s my life!” Jesus’ words fly in the face of all these assumptions about whose life we are living. He says that no one has the capacity to raise the price that would buy his or her life as a secure possession.
 “Whoever is ashamed of Jesus now in the common pressures of life will feel the shame of Jesus in the end, when those who wanted to save themselves stand before the One who did not.”[3]
Finding comes through losing, living comes from dying, I find out who I really am by discovering who Jesus is, the way to fulfill myself is to set self aside. The call of Christ then, as now, was filled with such paradoxes.
Jesus’ words are a challenge to any group or person, no matter whether conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, believer or doubter. To churches that doze along in a comfortable pew piety, Jesus’ call is clear to get up, take up a cross and follow on the hard way; to those who occupy themselves telling people to “get saved,” Jesus offers a rather stern warning about a preoccupation with saving one’s self; to radical movements for liberation, Jesus warns against identifying the assertion of any group’s economic and political agenda with the self-emptying work of the kingdom; to those who because of self-interest are opposed to movements to free people, Jesus issues afresh the challenge of self-denial.
Not everyone who responds is a plastic saint, either, but often is simply the woman whose self-interest is set aside in order to rear a houseful of homeless children, or the man whose devotion to his mentally ill wife is the one constant in her life, or the neighbor who sets aside her own plans to lend a hand in the church school, or the one who offers the cup of cold water to the thirsty stranger.
I Gotta Be Me may well be the anthem of the self in every age. Jesus is also concerned for self-fulfillment. But his way is more challenging, and, ultimately, more fulfilling: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Shall we wear the cross or the crown? In the end, it must be both.
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Saint Mark, D.E. Nineham, p. 224.
[2] This paragraph thanks largely to Lamar Williamson in his commentay Mark, p. 153.
[3] Ibid. p. 155

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Vintage Tale

A Vintage Tale

copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 9, 2012

Mark 12:1-12

A man planted a vineyard,
put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press,
and built a watchtower;
then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

Whose vineyard is it, anyway? It’s a question put by Jesus – by means of a parable – to those who questioned his authority. Isn’t a parable an odd sort of way to address a question about authority? Maybe. But I’m guessing, since it’s Jesus doing the teaching, not in this case.
To understand Jesus’ parable, the first thing we have to think about is what it means to be tenants. Some of us probably rent homes or apartments. Some others of us probably own our homes...or imagine we do, until we have to send in that monthly mortgage check to the people who really own our homes. We may be more like tenants than we like to think, unless the house is completely paid off. And even if it’s paid off, just try withholding property taxes for a few years and see whose house it is then.
I have been a renter and I also have “owned” 6 different homes in my lifetime. Though, I have to admit, I never really owned any of them, don’t really own the one I live in now, the mortgage lender always has and still does own a pretty large interest in my home. In many ways, I am a tenant on someone else’s property.
These random musings about ownership of property might help us begin to make connection with Jesus’ teaching on authority through the parable of the wicked tenants in an absentee owner’s vineyard.
I remember my first years of ministry, living in what Presbyterians call a “manse.” Methodists and others call them “parsonages.” Whatever we call them, they are church-owned homes in which pastors are invited to live during the time they are serving a particular church. In the last half century, many churches have sold their manses in favor of a housing allowance for pastors. Still, when ministers gather, even if it’s been years since they occupied a manse or parsonage, there is almost invariably a time when tales of woe from bad experiences in the church manse are shared. I recall the story of a pastor friend whose wife had the audacity to move the sofa in their church manse from one room to another, only to suffer the wrath of church members who had collectively donated the sofa specifically for the room from which she had moved it. A great uproar ensued, and eventually the pastor and his wife moved the sofa back where it had been. Then, as soon as possible, they found another church to serve that did not have the “benefit” of a manse.
That little fracas involved, of course, a question of authority. Whose manse was it anyway? The title deed had the church’s name on it, and the church authorities had charge of the stewardship of it, and only by their leave did the pastor and his or her family live there. “By what authority are you moving that sofa?” the elders wanted to know. And, of course, they held all the cards, the authority over property in the church was theirs to exercise. “By what authority are you doing these things?” the priests, scribes, and elders asked, after Jesus had come riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, moving the moneychangers’ furniture on the Temple grounds. Jesus wouldn’t say, instead he told this story.
God’s kingdom is something like a vineyard, Jesus said, which an owner planted, improved with a new fence, wine press and watchtower. Then he leased it to some tenants and for reasons all his own, he went to another country, which is to say, out of sight and, judging by the rest of the story, pretty soon out of mind.
A few years back the newspaper carried a front page story about a California company, Premier Pacific Vineyards, that had purchased and developed six vineyards in Polk and Yamhill counties here in Oregon, as an investment on behalf of the retirement system for California public employees. Now I doubt that any of the front office folks at Premier Pacific come up here on a regular basis to cultivate and water the vines in their vineyards. My guess is that they hired vineyard managers who, in turn, hired workers to till and cultivate the vines. My guess is also that if a day dawned when the vineyard managers and their workers decided that they could just keep all profits from those vineyards for themselves, the parent company would put a quick end to their folly.
But that’s not how it went in Jesus’ parable. In his story, the tenants enjoyed the vineyard and all the owner-financed improvements for a while, and then began to develop a proprietary sense about the place. It wasn’t their vineyard, never was. They didn’t purchase the ground, had made none of the original improvements on it. They enjoyed the fruits of a vineyard established by someone else, who had invited them to live and work there on his behalf. That’s how things stood until that day, that seemingly normal day like other days, when the owner sent someone to collect the rent that was due to him for the benefits they derived from his property and its improvements.
Incredibly, the tenants in the story responded as if they were owners rather than renters. They shamelessly beat the representative the owner sent to collect the rent. The incredibly forbearing owner sent another unsuspecting servant to collect the rent, money which was clearly due him. What did the wicked tenants do? They pulled out the brass knuckles and baseball bats, beat him, and, for good measure, added insults to his injuries, and tossed him out the gate.
Unbelievably, the long-suffering owner sent a third unlucky servant to collect the rents, but now feeling empowered in their evil, they killed this one. Jesus said, “so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” By now, we may recognize the servants as representations of the Old Testament prophets, and the land owner as a representation of God.
In exasperation, the owner sent his own son – and now we begin to see the parallel with the story of Jesus – the owner sent his own son to set things to right, but the tenants, consistent in their evil, killed the owner’s son, unceremoniously pitching his lifeless body outside the property. They believed that now, with the owner’s heir out of the way, they would inherit the property themselves, perhaps by squatter’s rights. What would you expect that the owner of the vineyard would do to these tenants? You know the rest of the story, and it wasn’t a happy ending for those tenants
Why did Jesus tell this story? It’s a parable that appears in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and each reports that it was told in response to a question about authority. By what authority, the presumptive authorities had asked Jesus, do you do these things? But Jesus knew whatever authority they had was only derivative. If the priests, scribes and elders had authority over matters civil and religious in Israel, it was like the authority of the tenants in the vineyard, derived, granted by another, by the God of Israel.
When pastors or musicians select a hymn or anthem for a Sunday morning, we frequently ask ourselves, “Do the people know this hymn? Do they like to sing it? Is it good music?” Rarely do we ask, “What does this hymn say about God? Will God be pleased with our singing of it today?” When we fail to ask these other questions, we are guilty of acting as if this were our church, our vineyard, owned by us and the members who gather here. It goes along with sentences like, “This isn’t the pastor’s church, it’s our church,” or “This church doesn’t belong to the session, it belongs to the people.” In truth it belongs neither to pastor nor session nor people. We are the tenants. God is the owner who has called us to come and till this corner of his vineyard for a time.
If we plan Sunday worship, or anything else in the church for that matter, saying, “What do we want from this worship or this activity,” by the measure of this gospel parable, the questions we ought to be asking instead are, “By whose authority do we do these things that we do? What does God require? Whose church is this, anyway?”
This teaching goes beyond the worship and fellowship life of the church, of course. In our confessions and by our study of scripture, we believe that the whole bountiful, beautiful earth is not ours to use for our own pleasure. We’re all tenants in this garden of delights, in spite of the fact that we often use and abuse the earth and its creatures as if we were gods unto ourselves, owing nothing to anyone else. In the end the church doesn’t belong to elders, pastors, or people, but to God. Easy to say, more difficult to live as though it’s true and we believe it.
Some have called Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants a parable of judgment, but is it really? Could it be that it’s a story of grace? When we ask ourselves, “What do I want from this church? What do we need to do to keep this congregation going, to make worship meaningful, to keep being faithful?” Ought we not to be asking ourselves, “By whose authority is all this singing, serving, and speaking done?” This is not our church, this place is God’s. This church is ours on loan. The one who created this church paid for it with the death of his Son.[1]
There is grace in this message. A pastor can’t keep a church going. Nor can anyone sitting in a pew in the congregation or choir. This church is God’s. Worship leaders can’t make “it” happen for you on Sunday – whatever “it” is – no matter how hard we work on music, anthems, prayers, sermons. If something worshipful happens, it’s a gift of God. The church is gathered under the authority of God, not as a self-generating society of unfulfilled expectations.
A Methodist friend of mine shared the following story of a family he knew, visiting in a university town in California where the father was teaching for the summer:
When they entered town, they passed by a large, impressive Methodist church. Of course, this story could as easily be about Presbyterians or Lutherans as about Methodists:
The father said to his family, “Let’s go to that church on Sunday.”
On Sunday they got up, got dressed, and walked to church. As they came near to the building, they could hear music, loud music, guitars, drums, emanating from the neogothic building.
 “What kind of church is this?” his son asked. The father replied, “Well, it’s one of ours, you’ve got to remember that we’re in California....”
A smiling usher greeted them at the door. When the door opened, they could see that the service had begun. In the service there was a band in full swing. People were clapping and swaying to the music, people of all ages, of every color of the rainbow.
 “Is this a Methodist church?” they asked.
 “Oh, no,” the usher said. “We rent this sanctuary from the Methodist church. If you like, I’ll take you to the Methodist church.”
And the usher took him around the corner of the building to a small chapel where there gathered a huddled, small group of … people, plodding through a traditional service. On the way back home, as they made their way through a sidewalk filled with people emerging from the larger service around the corner, the father looked back at that emerging throng of all ages, nations, and races, and said to his family, “That was the Methodist church.”
It’s important that we never fail to remind one another that our church is not ours. We just work here in the vineyard for the time being. It’s a vineyard which, if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to God.

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] From “Taken and Given to Someone Else,” a sermon preached by William Willimon at the Duke University chapel.