If You Want to Be Great at Something...

Mark 9:30-37

People are ambitious by nature, and ambitious people seek recognition and reward. The championship trophy for the greatest athlete, the adoring fans and lucrative contracts for actors and actresses; stock-options and country estates for successful businessmen and bankers; advancement in rank and ticker-tape parades for military heroes…great ambitions demand greater recognition.

Yet for Jesus’ followers, aspirations of greatness are sometimes criticized as lacking humility. Ambitious people are suspected of loving themselves more than God…of stealing a little bit of God’s glory for themselves...of being too worldly. Today’s scripture about “being greatest” and “being last” is an oft-quoted example of how Jesus despised ambition in his disciples. But did Jesus really feel this way?

Jesus in fact does not despise the desire to be “greatest.”  Today’s lesson actually has Jesus giving us the very recipe for greatness: “If you want to be greatest of all do this.…” What Jesus did do is stand the world’s definition of greatness on its head. His teaching undercuts a basic human assumption about the nature of achievement.  When it comes to influence and notoriety, we are to think small, not big. We are to think “serve,” not “get served.” We are to think of going a second mile instead of finding the most convenient rest stop.

The greatest heroes of our faith will not ever need to apologize for the recognition they receive in the fullness of God’s Kingdom.  But in this age, when we yet await that fulfillment, greatness is often overlooked because it always serves.  Simply and tirelessly.  Are you ready to be great?

Look Again

Mark 8:27-38

This morning’s Gospel lesson is like a fulcrum at the center of Mark’s message—the hinge upon which the curiosity of the disciples swings open into true faith. The true nature of Jesus’ identity, and the implications of what that means for his followers, is now on the table. The public mission of Jesus in Galilee is essentially over, and from this moment on everything points toward Jerusalem, and so the disciples are given entirely new teaching: The Son of Man must suffer and be crucified!

When the Disciples—especially Peter—heard the new teaching, it didn’t sit well. Watching Jesus endure suffering, death, persecution…this is not the sort of thing that gets a person out of bed to come to worship in the morning! Peter actually took hold of Jesus and began to rebuke him, as if to say, “this really isn’t the sort of Christ we were looking for!” Jesus rebuked him right back: “Well,  you aren’t looking in any place that God cares about!”  

Jesus went on to say that not only will the Son of Man suffer, but everyone who will be a true disciple must likewise enter a self-denying, cross-enduring life of their own. The word we’d all suspected, but not wanted to face, is finally announced: in order to keep our lives, we have to let them go. If we clutch on and try to save ourselves, we will lose what we’ve got. 

At the heart of the entire matter is the basic question of who is “in charge.” Do we make Jesus ours, or we are his? Will we try to make Jesus into our personal Christ, or will we ourselves become his obedient disciples? In Mark’s Gospel the whole narrative hinges on that one essential question. For us today, it is still a matter of life and death.

Margin Calls

Mark 7:24-37

We live in a world full of physical barriers. Everywhere we turn, at every level of human existence, we encounter gates, walls, fences, security systems, police forces, armies, air and naval forces. Some barriers are meant to keep undesirables out, and others are built to wall undesirables in.  But in all cases there exist two realities: people will go out of their way to define what makes others different from them, and people will be consumed with fear of what is different.

It is into this fearful, mistrusting world that Jesus sends his followers to “make disciples of every nation…” (Matt 28:19), acknowledging as he does that he sends us “like sheep among wolves” (Matt 10:16).  In order to fulfill this commandment of Jesus, his church will need to risk transcending the barriers that separate people from people, nation from nations—whether those barriers are physical, spiritual, or ideological. Jesus himself forgave sinners, healed the infirm and welcomed them, and was led by a Canaanite woman to grant her the gospel of love when he was tempted to dismiss her as someone “other.”

The high calling of the church is to find a way to move through the margins that divide our world, in order to bring the saving message of the gospel to all persons. As once upon a time doctors used to leave comforting confines of the hospital and make “house calls,” so now we are sent from the comfortable places in our pews to make margin calls among the people living at the borders and boundaries of our world.

Why Keep the Commandments?

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

“What is happening to the church these days?” a leader asked.  He went on to recite a list of concerns: people wearing shorts and sandals to worship…people talking loudly before the service begins and walking out during the postlude…loud, obnoxious music… ”One congregation even has a coffee bar and tables in the balcony of the sanctuary!” For that church leader it seemed nothing but a blatant disrespect for God, bordering on blasphemy.

God’s people in every age have adopted various practices which were designed to protect the laws and commandments of God, and to keep believers walking in an upright manner. In Jesus’s time these practices were called traditions of the elders, and they became a kind of litmus test for faith.  If someone were to skip over one of these traditions, as was the case when Jesus’ disciples ate without first washing their hands, it occasioned much criticism, even to the point of being cast out by the religious authorities.

Jesus’ word on the subject is one of liberality. Traditions can be important markers for our faith, so long as they point toward God and a help us grow in God’s grace. The commandments themselves are meant to help us know the heart of God. But when our traditions become ends in and of themselves…they can become barriers to knowing God and keeping His commandments. We are therefore called by Christ to find our unity in the essentials matters of faith, and extend freedom to all in the non-essential matters. The place where the conversation about what is essential and what is not even has a special name. It’s called “church.”

Sam is currently out on medical leave, but the audio file of this sermon should be online around Labor Day. Thank you for your patience!

The Whole Armor of God: Therefore, Stand

Ephesians 6:10-20

Living a life of Christian discipleship faith requires both physical and spiritual engagement…a life of unceasing prayer and compassionate works of mercy. Because faithful living requires both body and spirit, the author of Ephesians calls his readers to renewed confidence in Christ. Confidence that death is conquered, confidence that Christ has defeated the powers in the heavens, confidence that the spiritual armor supplied to the church can withstand all that is arrayed against it. While the victory is Christ’s in heavenly places, the author knows full well that the gospel of peace must still be proclaimed upon the earth, in word and deed. The world in which we now live is personally and socially resistant to the transforming power of God and God’s word.  Thus anyone undertaking such a proclamation of the the gospel enters a arena in which he or she is called, under the protection of God, to make a stand.“Having done everything, therefore, stand….”  This is our solemn calling in Christ.

Sam is currently out on medical leave, but the audio file of this sermon should be online around Labor Day. Thank you for your patience!

The Whole Armor of God: Armed and Dangerous

Ephesians 6:10-20

The man we call “Paul the Apostle” has a fascinating background. As much as we are impressed with his writings, we forget that he didn’t encounter Christ until his conversion on the road to Damascus. He never saw Jesus in the flesh or heard him tell any of his transforming parables. And yet, Paul—apart from being the first church theologian—was an imaginative teacher and poet (e.g., 1 Corinthians 13), using metaphors, or word pictures, to make us all the richer.

Metaphors invites us to enter unexplored territory—and often without our realizing what they’re doing. So, when Paul says, “Put on the whole armor of God,” he not only gives us a lively lesson for kindergartners but also opens the whole area of spiritual conflict, an area not many of us are comfortable exploring.

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells us that there is a battle, a war between good and evil—think Noah and the flood; the Exodus story; the days of Judges; men like Abraham, Jacob, and David; and women like Ruth, Deborah, and Esther—all trying to restore God’s people.  The battle is complex—that’s why Paul wrote, “Put on the whole armor of God!”

Sam is currently out on medical leave, but the audio file of this sermon should be online around Labor Day. Thank you for your patience!

The Whole Armor of God: Know the Enemy


Ephesians 6:10-20

We live in a world that places the high value on projections of power and influence. With a deep sense of awe, note is carefully taken of the tallest buildings, the largest ships, the greatest armies, the fastest aircraft, and the most sophisticated computer networks. Those who have “the goods” have the respect (and more often than not, fear) of the “lesser thans.” Whoever holds the biggest and best has the freedom to go wherever and whenever they want, unencumbered by and indifferent to all others. Even some churches are not immune to this headlong pursuit of “bigger and better.”

Then there is Paul, an apostle of Jesus, who was “in chains” and under house arrest for preaching the gospel. Surrounded by Roman Soldiers—members of the mightiest and fiercest military force the world had yet known—he was prevented from moving about freely and limited in his access to others. In the midst of his imprisonment, Paul writes to the Ephesians,  urging them to grow in faith until they understand “what is the height, and length, and breadth, and depth” of God’s mysterious love. 

Hanging on to faith in a world where might makes right is a daily battle. But Paul wants his readers to know that the fight is not on the same field of battle that the world chooses. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Knowing the nature of our fight, and who we are fighting, allows even the powerless in this world to become champions of faith.