Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - September 24, 2006

    Don’t you think there had to be times when Jesus just wanted to start over with a new set of disciples?   The group he had seemed so incapable of understanding who he was and what his mission was that it had to get frustrating for him.  Today’s text from Mark is a case in point.  It kind of picks up on last week’s gospel where Jesus began to teach them that he must undergo suffering and rejection and death but they didn’t want to hear it; at least Peter didn’t. 

Today Jesus repeats his teaching about betrayal and death but again they either don’t want to hear it or it is just so far away from what they do want to hear that they can’t hear it.  Like Peter, they’re still pulling for glory, arguing about which of them is the greatest, still failing to comprehend the part about if you want to follow me you have to take up your cross and follow, and that might not be particularly glorious.

They consistently don’t get it, so you might think Jesus would decide this rag tag group of fishermen wasn’t such a good idea after all, that he might decide to blow the thing up and start over.  But it reminds me of the story that is told about Jesus after he ascends into heaven (you may have heard this) and is talking with the angels who ask him how he now plans to complete his mission.  He looked down at his confused, frightened disorganized disciples and said, “They’re going to complete it.”  The angels said, “Them???”  And Jesus said, “Yeah, them.”  But the angels, trying to be nice, this is Jesus they’re talking to after all, said, “Well, OK, but let’s suppose for a moment that they’re not up to it.  What’s your back up plan?”  Jesus said, “There is no back up plan.”

Of course, part of the moral of the story is that Jesus could be, perhaps is, having the same conversation with the angels today as he considers those of us who now claim to be his followers.  Before we take shots at the disciples for their failure to understand what Jesus was about, we have to confront our own inability to understand.  As much as we hear about the cross, the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death, the need for us to take up our cross, we like the sound of glory better too.  It’s more appealing to think about your faith as a path to success and well being than to think about it as a path that leads to a cross. 

You may have seen the recent issue of Time magazine with the cover story question, “Does God want you to be rich?”  The answer of one prominent pastor  in Houston, Texas is “Yes!” and every Sunday he packs 15,000 people into the arena where the Houston Rockets used to play so they can hear his prosperity gospel. 

Are there Bible verses that support his answer?  Sure.  There are isolated Bible verses from which you can support lots of things.  But you have to ignore an awful lot of the core testimony of the Old Testament, especially the prophets, and you have to ignore an awful lot of the New Testament, particularly the core teachings of Jesus, to draw the conclusion that God wants you to be rich, that you should pray for and expect God to make that happen.  These people are reading from a pretty thin Bible.  It sells though.  He packs them in; but it’s kind of the ultimate corruption of church as a business, give the people what they want, make it uplifting and entertaining, who cares if it doesn’t have much to do with the teachings of Jesus as long as we can fill this big building.

I tend to think that Jesus is perhaps as frustrated with that group of disciples as he was with the original twelve.  But…before I get too self-righteous…I have to, we have to look in the mirror.  Blatantly preaching a get rich, prosperity gospel may not be our problem, but in other ways we are just as guilty of failing to understand what the life and teaching of Jesus was and is all about.  Or, what may be even worse is that we do understand what he talked about, but essentially ignore it. Mark Twain once said it’s not the Bible verses I don’t understand that concern me, it’s the ones I do understand.

For example, I know that at Bethany we spend an awful lot of time planning the next big dinner event; there’s the anniversary Turkey dinner in October, an Advent dinner in December, mid-week Lenten suppers, a picnic in July.  They’re all great events; I like all of them; I like to eat.  They are wonderful times of fellowship and to be fair the proceeds do go to worthwhile causes.   But it always makes me think, do we spend as much time planning ways to feed others who may not have enough as we do with feeding ourselves?  I certainly don’t despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I understand what Jesus would say about this.

Jesus talked more about economic and social justice than anything else, yet our commitment to it as churches can be pretty weak.  Jesus is the Prince of peace who taught turn the other cheek yet still, calling ourselves Christians, we find ways to justify answering violence with more violence even though we know what that creates is still more violence.  We don’t really trust the alternative kingdom, the alternative way to be that Jesus talked so much about.  I always find it amazing at synod assemblies when resolutions about peace and justice come up and people find reasons not to vote for them.  I don’t know what they’re afraid of, but it’s something.

And how much time do we spend as churches and church bodies, talking about, debating things about which Jesus said almost nothing, making ourselves the morality police, the protectors of purity as if that were the main job of the church, essentially saying that certain people are outside the grasp of God’s grace unless they change, and we’ll decide who they are!  In Jesus dealings with the ritually unclean, prostitutes, tax collectors, ethnic outsiders, that never seemed to be his big concern, so why is it ours?

No, I think there have to be times when those angels in heaven look at us and look at Jesus and say, “Still no back up plan?”  Fortunately, Jesus does demonstrate considerable patience.  He was pretty abrupt with Peter last week, and I think we do have to take that seriously lest we get too comfortable, Jesus can have an edge to him.   But in today’s lesson he is more patient; he tries another approach to help them understand what he’s talking about.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says and then he provides an object lesson, bringing a little child among them.  This is a passage that often gets used to support the presence of children in worship even though they may get a little noisy or disruptive sometimes; Jesus welcomed the little children, so should we, that kind of thing.  That’s OK, but in the context of this lesson I don’t think that’s the main focus. 

What I picture here is a small child, a toddler, innocent, weak, vulnerable, in need of protection, dependent on others for everything.  Jesus uses this child to graphically upset the disciples’ notions of greatness.  In Jesus’ eyes, greatness is found in this child like humility as with so many things he turns expectations and understandings upside down.

There still wasn’t much indication of understanding on the part of the disciples.  They continued to have trouble with Jesus’ alternative view of the world and we still do.  But Jesus is patient.  He continues to provide for his message to be heard even though the voices proclaiming something else are pretty pervasive and pretty loud.  What I believe is that the groups of disciples that Jesus looks upon favorably are those who gather for worship in his name and hear his upside down vision of things proclaimed week after week and who then begin to trust that vision.  Trusting the vision, you begin to imagine ways that you can live it, and you see that it does make a difference.

I think most of us understand Jesus vision of things, that his priorities are different than ours.  We usually know what Jesus would have us do but it involves repentance in the sense of turning from ways that are quite comfortable.  But Jesus is patient.  He has to be, because we are the plan, and there is no backup.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
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not me
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one who
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