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I AM PUTTING THE FIRST FEW SERMONS IN THE 2021 SERIES, “WHERE DO YOU LOOK?” ON THIS PAGE SINCE I WILL BE TAKING A BREAK FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS. PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR THE SEQUENCE OF MESSAGES.
NOTE: This was written in 2018 after a school shooting, and this is reflected in the message. Yet we seem to have typical, innate reactions to collective tragedy and suffering.
Mark 1:9-15….. Lent 1B
Rev. Deb Mechler
We are poised almost at the beginning of Lent, a few days into it. Jesus is poised to begin his ministry in our gospel story. It almost seems as though he is checking off a list, the way Mark tells it. Baptism, check. Temptation, check. Now I can start proclaiming the kingdom of God.
Of course there is much more to it than that. There is God’s voice breaking in at his baptism, for one thing: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well pleased.”
And we know that Jesus’ time in the wilderness involved some real wrestling with Satan, the big liar. Something about turning stones into bread, jumping off the temple, and worshiping the tempter himself.
But Mark doesn’t go into all of that. What he does mention that the others don’t are the wild beasts, along with the angels that waited on him.
If Jesus is to be of any use, he has to address some inner issues that might otherwise get in the way of his ministry. I wonder if the mention of both beasts and angels suggests that Jesus had to deal with the inner tensions we all contend with. We know what that is like. We vacillate between heeding God’s invitation to mission and meaning, and letting our misgivings and pet sins have the upper hand. How easily we give in to the fears and habits and attitudes that get in the way of being God’s mouthpiece, God’s agent for healing.
So, Jesus has to take a hard look at what might compromise his message and his impact. Wait, we think of Jesus as perfectly suited to his mission, God’s own Son who came equipped with everything he would need. Why would he have to overcome the same pitfalls we face? I don’t know, but he did.
So, if we want to live close to the center of God’s kingdom and have any spiritual impact, we might need to face the same things. What is true for Jesus in this case would count double—or a hundred-fold—for us. Jesus cannot bypass suffering, cannot skirt around the cross, so he will need to make sure he is spiritually ready. All the more true for us, his disciples, following him on the same road.
If we think of Jesus going out to the desert on a spiritual retreat, we can imagine what he might pack to take along. He didn’t need the scrolls of the ancient texts; good Hebrew boys had them memorized. What is essential, and what is not? This would be good preparation for his three years of ministry. He would have to travel light.
He could not take along much of what he learned about religion. The old assumptions, the previous obligation of his life as a citizen of Galilee were no longer of use to him. He would not be subordinate to the temple or to any of the authorities, religious or Roman. We could say that his baptism signaled the end of that life and the beginning of the new.
Jesus was out there in the silence and the elements for forty days.
Imagine what it would be like. Could you handle all the thoughts and feelings that would finally catch up with you in the silence? When the first wild animal creeps up, would you stay or would you head for home? And how did Jesus—how could we—tell the difference between Satan’s voice, God’s voice, and our own inner whining, or wisdom?
If we are to be of any use to God, we need to face these beasts and meet the angels. We cannot avoid the inner work of being a whole human being if we want to get close to God and one another. Like Max in Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are, we need to face the monsters that want to take over and make us impossible to live with. And when we do, we might find that they are not as powerful and fearsome as we thought. Maybe that is the angels’ job, to help us get close.
But we can only find out if we go there.
I think this is particularly important to say in light of another tragic school shooting. [Written in 2018] It is horrible, unthinkable that we are agonizing over this yet again. I do not mention this lightly, and certainly do not wish to exploit it as a mere sermon illustration.
No, this is reality. This is where the wild things are, and they are not fun like Max’s monsters. This is pure evil come too close, too often. How can we regard it through the lens of the Gospel?
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, it is said, and this would not be the first time I would be called a fool. But we need to address it as God’s people, to wrestle with its ferocity and just the reality of it. If the way of Jesus isn’t relevant to this, then he is no good to us.
The news was still fresh when the arguments began. Why did this happen? We think we can prevent more violence if we can somehow understand it. What can we do?
One answer is that we can blame someone. Who is responsible? A young man. But it is unthinkable that so much destruction could come from one person, and so young. We cannot fathom it without presuming that there were forces influencing him, or failing to address his problems.
Blame is only one version of what has come to be called magical thinking, the idea that there is a solution out there somewhere. If we could only find the key to the puzzle, we could use it and solve the problem. “Poof!”
Of course none of us is that naïve when we give it any thought. Yet it seems to be an underlying theme to our collective thinking. We believe in cause and effect, a straight line from one to the other. Word hard and you will get results (except when you don’t). Spend more money on education and produce better test results (except when you don’t).
We are continuously disillusioned that our technological prowess, advances in scientific thinking, and progress in institutions do not produce better results than they have. Yet we are able to scrape together just enough evidence of their usefulness to maintain a little comfort, a sense of control. And so we can avoid addressing the disillusionment itself. Except when we can’t.
Maybe it is our illusions that are the problem.
We are experiencing the tragedy collectively, as we did 9/11 on a much larger scale. We feel victimized, and so we follow the impulse to blame someone. We do not like to be acted upon without our consent. This cannot be allowed! We are accustomed to being the act-ors, not the ones on the other side of the action. It is best to be in control. This is the illusion we are living under.
How does this relate to facing the beasts in the desert? Mark says the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. He needed a push, and so do we! We need to spend time in the silence that yields that still, small voice of God. Maybe we can only encounter that voice when we are willing to go where there are no distractions, so that is where the beasts—our evil tendencies?—hang out.
It is almost impossible to hear the Voice amid the clamor for meaning and justice. But this is the same Voice that has been whispering its truth to us every moment of our lives, underneath our emotional experiences as well as our daily lives. It always comes to us when we grieve, so naturally we resist the familiar sound. And yet the same insistent Voice is detected in quiet times of joy. The Voice is both calm and urgent. What is this elusive Voice?
I suspect it is Love.
Ah! Yes, we need love. We’ll get to that after we have found the solution to our tragedy, after justice has been served, after after after.
God who is Love invites us to listen now, especially now. But the message seems too simplistic, so we dismiss it as folly. Don’t make the mistake of thinking love is simple, or easy. We are asked to surrender to love’s requirements, and they can be the hardest challenges of our lives. We are asked to yield to this work, not take charge. It involves facing the truth inside ourselves, those parts that are not loving at all. It involves allowing ourselves to be acted upon, not to be in control of the project. Only God can untangle the sinister forces at work among us and even within us.
If Jesus did anything, he showed and taught that wielding power is not the solution. He will not offer any solution, only a way. His way invites us to be vulnerable, and listen, and reach out to care. And in the course of following Jesus’ way, God works something wonderful in us that is the opposite of violence and hate.
It is counter-cultural to let anyone—even God—have power over us. But God will not abuse the opportunity. God does not force anything on us, but only invites us to wholeness.
You might think we are straying too far from the problem, thinking that love will do any good in this case. Policies and enforcement are called for, not fluffy ideas about love! But love is more relevant than anything else, because it is what all 17 victims and their parents and their murderer were created to do above all else. And only love will heal the gaping wounds, in time. Only the love of the one who was also victimized can stand with us and heal us at such a time.
Following Jesus will help us know the truth of it. We have two main choices in how we will cope with the reality of evil. We can deny or avoid it. We have myriad ways of doing that. Or we can follow Jesus. Following him trains us to live in hope as God’s people who love no matter what, and let the energy of that fierce love forge us into people who offer hope to the world. It is not an easy path, not a quick solution, but it is the way to life.
Jesus could have waved his hand and fixed all the problems of his time. He could have offered an instant solution that would do nothing to soften and tame our wayward hearts. Instead he chose to do something that made no sense even to his disciples, not until after Jesus left them. He allowed himself to be acted upon, even to be killed, for the sake of love. He demonstrated the beatitudes he preached. He befriended all those who had no control over their lives, and he said that these are the ones who are prepared to live God’s way.
It makes no sense to us, not until we stop, and listen to the Voice of love, and heed it.
The spiritual practice I am suggesting this first week in Lent is journaling. It is an invitation to take time to pay attention to your inner beasts and angels. Record your questions, your thoughts, your anguish, your victories. Let that time be a bit of desert for you, where you will find that the beasts will not consume you, the angels will attend you, and God’s voice of love can reach you in the quiet.
“Look at the Cross”
Lent 2B…Mark 8:31-38
Spiritual Practice: The Jesus Prayer
Where do you look? What are you looking at? These are the questions that emerged as I pondered the gospel readings leading up to Easter this year.
They say that the eyes are windows to the soul. If they are, then our souls are taking in…what? Facebook and television images, or photos send to us on our phones, maybe. News feeds on our computers that are tailored to our opinions. Or, if you are not mesmerized by computer and phone screens, your attention might be focused on your bank balance. Or the approval or disapproval of people in your life. Or the mirror.
Whatever has your attention matters. We could even make a case for this: what holds your attention is what defines you. Another way to say it is that what you focus on is what you worship.
Strong statements. As we watch the progression of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, he gets closer and closer to the core of who they are. Up until now, Jesus has been the darling of the crowds, and the disciples were no exception.
But now the story turns.
Jesus began to predict his suffering and his death. I imagine Peter didn’t even hear the part about rising again, because he got snagged by the suffering and killing part. He was shocked. Jesus must have gone off the deep end. Could this be the same man who had been making blind people see and deaf people hear, the man who fed thousands of people with a couple of sack lunches, the one who walked on water as if it were solid ground?
Peter had no sooner made his great declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, than Jesus began to tell him and his friends that he was going to be tortured, rejected, and killed soon. This was not Messiah talk.
So he took it upon himself to pull Jesus aside and set him straight. The Messiah is supposed to save his people, not walk into a buzz saw of rejection and evil. The Messiah serves the needs of God’s people best by bringing healing and hope, by rescuing them from Roman oppression. He didn’t have to put up with people who didn’t agree with him.
But of course it was Jesus who ended up setting Peter straight. He told Peter in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t playing at being the Messiah. He meant business, except the transactions of his business were strange and chilling, much more costly than Peter could imagine. Jesus spelled out exactly what the salvation of God’s people would cost. His life would be required, but then he expected those he saved to fall in line behind him and give their lives too.
We think of this portion in Mark 8 as a call to discipleship. The terms could not be more simple: take up your cross. Period. Not the cross and a few other things you want to take along. Only the cross. Not a prettier cross. The one that tortures and kills. The one that shames.
Jesus predicted that he would be rejected—shamed—by the religious authorities. They were considered the most moral, most godly people of all. They would reject Jesus as cruelly and emphatically as possible. The worst kind of rejection anyone could imagine.
Follow me, Jesus says.
He does not offer a five-tiered menu of options for disciples. You know how they name the categories of people who support a fund drive. There are the “supporters” and the bronze, silver, and gold donors, or whatever metaphor is being used. Jesus doesn’t offer your choice of being a fan, a patron, a friend, a student, or a follower. There are only two options: take up your cross and follow, or don’t.
If we call ourselves his followers, then we have to contend with that pesky cross planted firmly in the road. It is the proverbial elephant in the room that takes up so much space. It has to be acknowledged and considered at every moment. And it has blood on it.
As we gaze at the cross of Jesus and consider what it asks of us, it becomes a framework for everything else we see. We see the cross starkly outlined in front of us, but we also see through it to the world Jesus loves. “Persons who join this company [of Jesus followers] do not walk through the world with eyes averted…they develop ‘excruciatingly sensitive eyesight…The heart is stretched through suffering, and enlarged.’ Indeed, out of God’s own suffering, God ‘has planted the Cross along the road of holy obedience.’”[i]
As God’s people we need to resist the prevailing culture whose field of vision is filled with individualism, comfort, and amassing wealth and possessions. Instead of individualism, the cross calls us to a fellowship of committed followers. Instead of comfort, the cross asks us to be ready to give, and give, and give. Instead of possessions, the cross calls us to offer whatever it takes to live and love as Jesus does, with no regard for security, recognition, or success.
Lest we think he is asking too much, consider the questions Jesus poses: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
Jesus asks for nothing short of your life, your whole life. Well, when you think of it, what do you want your life to count for? Will your legacy be about a list of items on an auction advertisement, or the people whose lives you affected through your generosity and compassion? Has your life been taken up with a list of accomplishments, or have you also filled your soul with the faith and hope God has given you? There are so many distractions that promise life—even a legacy—but once you acquire them, they fall apart in your hands.
The cross will not fall apart on you.
You—your ideals and carefully laid plans—will fall apart. Maybe they already have. But that happens in life anyway, doesn’t it? Tragedy breaks us. Disappointment and disillusionment wear us down. Possessions demand more from us than we expected. How much better to be used up for the sake of Jesus Christ and his least and lost ones?
The cross and the call of Jesus are about your whole life, but you only have to give it one day at a time. One nudge to pray, or phone someone, or offer kind word, one at a time. Is it too much to ask you to follow Jesus in these simple ways? No, it is not too much. Maybe after we practice these deeds for a while, we are ready for a whole cross.
That cross will cast a shadow, and you will not always be able to see what is next. So you will have to trust the One who told us that he himself is the way. He had to trust too. He had to lay down his fears just like the rest of us.
The cross brought out the best in Jesus, his fierce love and commitment to us. Our cross will bring out the best in us too. Jesus promised as much: “Lose your life for my sake, and then you will find it.” The life that is truly life is shaped like a cross.
The spiritual practice I am suggesting this week is the Jesus Prayer. It is a very simple prayer that is meant to be repeated, whether a few times or at length. You might think that repetition would render it meaningless; but in fact, it becomes more profound the more you use it. People who develop the habit of this practice find the prayer returning them during the day. They might even return to it intentionally, to focus their attention on the Lord Jesus. The form I use is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Let’s try it as our prayer right now. Read the prayer a few times, and then allow for silence as you repeat it in your mind a few more times. If this is uncomfortable for you, you are welcome to pray as you wish. This is an invitation, not a requirement.
[i] Taken from “Our Covenant with God,” author unknown, quoting Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion.
Where Do You Look? Look to God
Rev. Deb Mechler
Why are you here? Here, instead of at home, drinking coffee? Or on your computer, on the highway, in bed? What do you come here to do?
If you had come into this room and I had rearranged the furniture to face the west wall, how would it make you feel? I would expect a lot of protests, because it would be unsettling. It wouldn’t take long for someone to point out that Jesus is on the north wall you are facing right now, and we shouldn’t turn away from him, or the altar, or the font, or the cross. It matters how we furnish this place, doesn’t it?
Jesus entered the temple near the beginning of John’s gospel and ransacked the place. Talk about unsettling. Why would he do that? They were conducting the normal business of religion. The sacrifices were commanded by God, and the sale of animals was just an efficient way to handle it instead of driving livestock for miles. Money had to be changed because the temple tax required special coinage. What was the big deal, Jesus?
We can imagine the uproar Jesus caused, and the authorities swooping in to see what was going on. The question put to Jesus seems odd: “What sign can you give us for doing this?” Let me rephrase it. “Who do you think you are?” What gives you the right to do such a thing?
We are only a few paragraphs into the book of John, who is building a case for Jesus’ identity and authority. There is that beautiful introduction where we learn that Jesus was at the creation of the world, and he is the Word, the Logos or “logic” behind everything. He became a human being whom John the Baptist called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Jesus is a rabbi who has been recruiting disciples. That position carries some authority with it, although not nearly enough to clear out the temple. Then there is the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine.
When you put all those things together, you get the sense that John is not just giving us a chronological account of Jesus’ life or ministry. His account of Jesus cleansing the temple is way out of order compared to the other gospel writers, in fact. He is painting a portrait of the Son of God who has come to be God’s voice and set things right where they have gone awry. God come to humanity as a human.
The sacrifices the people were busy with in the temple were sacrifices God had requested of the people, and we can find their origins in the Old Testament. But why was this strange practice put in place? It was a way to deal with sin.
We know what sin is, because we know what God wants and how we fail to live up to the Ten Commandments. Sin is being naughty, right? It makes God angry, right?
I wonder if we can deepen our understanding of what we were taught in Sunday School and in confirmation about sin. When you think of it, sin is basically what hurts, what destroys, what kills. The commandments given to Moses and the people were about an order for society, for life. God is in charge. Honor God. You can trust God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.
The commandments tell us to respect other people—their bodies, their reputations, their property. Sin is violating the trust that is necessary in order to live together.
When Jesus summed up the law, he went beyond respect and trust to love. Love the Lord your God. Love one another. This is all of it summed up in a simple way of life.
God made us to love one another, and to live in such a way that everyone has enough and nobody has to be afraid. When you are greedy or jealous or violent, you tear the relationships apart. You violate the trust at the foundation of all of it. That is sin.
So, sin has to be taken seriously. So let’s create a deterrent. Punish you, your neighbor, anyone who sins. Except we would spend all of our waking moments assigning penalties, because we sin every time we turn around.
OK, then. Kill an animal to show how serious sin is. Make a sacrifice. You don’t like giving up a creature you carefully fed and raised. But it is better than having your hand cut off, or being banished from the community.
I am probably oversimplifying this and maybe presuming to know the mind of God at the same time. But you get the idea. Sin matters, and it must be dealt with.
But after the sacrifices have been put in place, what happens a year, or two years, or ten, or a hundred years later? The sacrifices become more habit than heartfelt apology. They become a kind of payment, maybe even a “Get Out of Jail Free” card you play so you can function with a clear conscience. And you can go on sinning, and abusing your neighbor, and exploiting the poor, as long as you keep your appointment at the temple.
The prophet Amos gave voice to God’s disappointment:
“For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5:12)
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)
David understood the tension between thoughtless worship and obedience:
“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17)
Keep in mind that David learned this important truth and wrote about it when his heart was truly broken, when his sin with Bathsheba was on display, and he had broken trust with God.
Another problem that arose was that somebody had to be responsible for sin. Somebody had to be blamed. It was too easy to think that sin could be dealt with externally instead of dealing with it at the source, in the heart. So much of our sin involves blaming and shaming, literally scapegoating other people instead of dealing with the sin that metastasizes in our own lives.
Sin matters because it hurts, it kills, it destroys, it blames and shames. We were created to love, and the yearning for that love never leaves us. God fills our yearning for love with God’s own presence, with the delights of creation and family and community. God who created all things has authority to set the order, the proper function of every cell and quark of the created world and every intangible thought and bond within and among us humans.
So, when Jesus walked into the temple and sensed a blasé attitude about worship in the air, he had had enough. He shook things up. He drove out the cattle and sheep, because they weren’t what mattered! He dumped out the coins, because the purchase of sacrifices was distracting everyone from enjoying the presence of a loving God in worship and exploiting the poor who could scarcely afford the requirements of the temple. He wants everyone to look to God for forgiveness and healing.
What would happen if we emptied this room, and re-furnished it every single week? What if we had to heft this big altar onto the platform and put it in place so that we could gather to receive the body and blood of our Lord once again? And we wheeled in the baptism font and filled it with fresh water, every time, to remember that our sin and shame and mediocre worship have to die before we can really live in God’s reign?
And what would happen if we had to do that with our own inner temples? Choose the furnishings and make conscious choices every week, every day, about what belongs there and what does not? Because that is where God meets us at every moment. That is why Jesus claimed that he was the new temple that would be torn down but raised up again in only three days.
Where do you look? Look to God who comes to us on a cross, in the Spirit, through the reality of every day we live.
The cross we bear high on our steeple is a symbol that cuts to the core of things. It tells us that sin matters. On that cross Jesus dealt with the ugliest, most violent sin that resides in our hearts, so that we can come together and worship such a loving, saving, sin-forgiving God, and be healed, and live.
The spiritual practice I am suggesting this week is called Examen of Consciousness. It is a way of reviewing your day, confessing your sin, and receiving God’s forgiveness and power for forging a better life. It is a way of being specific, setting an intention for a life of discipleship. You can find the instructions in the folder with all the practices for the Lenten season in the narthex.
1. Pray for the grace to see your life through God’s eyes.
2. Ponder with affection all that God has done for you.
3. Review the day with no illusions. Recognize the consolations God has given you—moments of goodness or insight, etc. Acknowledge the desolations—words, actions, thoughts, or anxieties that drew you away from God.
4. Look gently at your sins and faults. Recognize that you possess them; they do not have to possess you. Give them to God, and ask for God’s forgiveness.
5. Resolve to take action. What practices, attitudes, intentions can you make to amend your life? Ask God to give you what you need to do this.