Jesus Loves Me Yes or No?

A Sermon on Mark 6: 1-29

“There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell but the mere pleasure of God. Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly from the wrath to come!”   On this “Throwback” Sunday, those are the words of Pastor Jonathan Edwards when he preached a sermon titled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” That sermon from 1790 is still studied today-as a literary form and as an example of fire and brimstone preaching, preaching designed to emphasize hell as a real place.  Now before you run away screaming, give me a chance to redeem the theology behind such declarations.

In Edwards time the goal of preaching do-you-love-me-filteredwas in part to keep people scared enough of hell that they’d live a good life despite themselves. Such sermons were crafted to awaken an audience to the horror that awaits them should they continue life without devotion to Christ.  My opening words this morning were Edwards’s final ones—every Sunday. Yikes.

His words and approach do not represent the God of love that I follow, just like we don’t beat our children in the shed anymore. But there are times when we would be well served by being made a little uncomfortable.

Paraphrasing Brian McLaren, if your goal is to keep yourself untouched by the world, preserved in roses until you can arrive without blemish in the afterlife, you’ve missed the heart of the gospel. The gospel isn’t something you learn. It’s something you live. The gospel is a verb. And there is a certain heresy to playing it safe when it comes to your faith.

Jesus loves me, yes or no? If you’re not sure, maybe you’ve grown too comfortable with your faith and possibly with Jesus?

Today’s gospel reading is largely about rejection, beginning with Jesus’ own rejection in his hometown.  What if we are the ones rejecting Jesus…. maybe because Jesus is just so darn familiar to us in the church. We, the church, are Jesus’ hometown. We’ve known him since we first heard the Christmas story. We’ve grow up with him. He is our constant companion – so constant a companion that we hardly notice him anymore. He’s one of us, a good buddy, a comfortable presence. And when he acts in divine ways and calls us into that same work with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees saying – who is this guy anyway?

Jesus loves me, yes or no?  Is your belief mere intellectual assent or is your faith a radical get-off-your-couch-to-join-God-where God-is -working kind of belief?

Verse 6 reports Jesus “was amazed at their disbelief.”  Would anyone want to be in the number to whom Jesus referred? God, no!

Their disbelief was not only crippling their own lives, apparently it was crippling his! Save a few minor healings here and there, we’re told he could do no deeds of power. Think about that for a moment.  Despite or perhaps because of rejection he sends out the twelve to proclaim and heal. Sending out is always at the center—even of these bookended stories.

Next… Mark reminds us of Herod’s own rejection of the truth and how it resulted in John the Baptist’s death– his head on a platter. He couldn’t say yes to John OR yes to Jesus but he couldn’t say NO to his wacky wife!  Herodias’ problem was that she was offended because John the Baptist condemned her marriage to her brother in law.  And Herod didn’t want to acknowledge John’s indictment. To do so would diminish his power because the one who rules the king, rules the kingdom.  And did you catch that Herod was freaked out because he thought Jesus might be John the Baptist resurrected?

Resurrection was at the heart of Jewish faith. It was connected to hope and hope is one of the most dangerous things oppressed people can have.  As king, Herod couldn’t risk hope if he couldn’t be the one to deliver it. Jesus loves me, yes or no?  No matter. After all Herod might say. It’s my birthday.

When we follow the narrative arc of God’s unrelenting pursuit of us, how can we answer the question without absolute confidence? Jesus loves me, yes or no? Jesus loves me THIS I KNOW!

You and I are called to tell the story, not only to be prophetic to others, but to be prophetic to ourselves: to rediscover who this Jesus we think we know so well, really is. We don’t need fire and brimstone to live a good life. We need a reality check!

God came down in Jesus to: bring good news to the poor, free the oppressed, release the captives, and to recover sight to the blind. Even today, Jesus’ message of good news is often met with rejection. Where would Jesus stand on the issues of our day?

Justice isn’t about violence and retribution. Justice is what loves looks like in public!

Jesus came to confront us. See Mathew 23.

Jesus came to include us. See Luke 18.

Jesus came to challenge us. See Matthew 9.

Jesus came to call us into service. See Mark 6!

Jesus loves me yes or no? See the whole bible!  Frankly I’m tired of anyone using fear to sell a good life. Fear sells. But love transforms!  Don’t live the gospel because you’re afraid not to! Live it because God first loved you and now you’re crazy in love right back!

Today’s preaching is designed to call you off your couches to share that good news with the world.

As for hell. Hell isn’t a place. It’s an experience: Hell is what the families in Flint Michigan are going through.  Hell is a child going to bed hungry, their parents frantic and broken not knowing where their next meal is coming from.  Hell is hoping the war in the Middle East doesn’t claim more children-our children. Hell is standing at the border of an unfamiliar country, holding a sick child, only to be turned away.

Ask any gay person if there was a time when Hell was being afraid that the answer to Jesus loves me, yes or no– really was no!

Truth is, there is nothing that keeps the world at any one moment out of hell but the mere fact that God sends us to make sure that does not happen. It is silence and inaction that makes hell a possibility for any of us.  Let’s reform Edwards benediction saying therefore let everyone that is out of Christ now awake and fly towards the LOVE to come!

People of God, the world is waiting on our next move.

In Jesus name. Amen.

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Oh Say Can You See?

A Sermon based on  Mark 10: 32-52

Our Lenten journey continues with the theme “opening our eyes to God,” framed by a gospel that artfully places before us a story of spiritual and physical blindness.  It is a kind of vision test that invites us to become aware of how we Bartimaeusare using our physical and spiritual eyes.  Referring to our spiritual eyes, the 13th century poet RUMI said “Close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

It’s a timely reflection during a contentious election year when we are living with a level of division that can cause us to question what we see and if others are looking at the same thing.  Clearly not everyone sees the candidates or the presidency or the best course for America the same way–not our neighbors and not even our family members.

What we see and how we see it is more than a matter of how light rays reflect and enter the cornea.  Vision infers a kind of interpretation or as Anais Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”.

I learned the hard way that even history is up for interpretation depending on who is doing the interpretation.  What happened was that I simply brought home my middle school history homework.  Not surprisingly my Serbian mother took issue that my textbook pointed to the two Serbian “terrorists” who started World War 1 when they assassinated Arch Duke Ferdinand.  Apparently that was a small part of the larger story. Still she was furious that Ferdinand’s death was being viewed in isolation and she was ready to march down to my school to give my teacher a history lesson of painful personal context.

She knew first-hand the complexity of events and ideals that would become World War 1, telling me what the classroom had not. That years of ethnic conflict had resulted in 30,000 Serbians being held in Austro-Hungarian death camps. Her mother, grandmother and my aunts were held and several died there. This was the first time in my life when I questioned that not everything we’re told—even in school–is the entire truth.

So does that mean truth is a moving target? Not exactly but it can involve a certain amount of bias, positive or negative. We see what we’ve been taught to see and… we see what we want to see. It was the same with the disciples. They did not want to see that Jesus wasn’t going to save them in the way they wanted to be saved. They were looking for a military hero so in the beginning it was not good news that he was a global hero of an entirely different type.

And so Mark tells us the story of Jesus’ desire to instruct his followers in matters of spiritual and physical short-sightedness. Their myopathy didn’t allow them to see who Jesus was or the fullness of why God came down in Jesus. Despite his every attempt to tell a larger truth– that he had come to set ALL the captives free, that he had come to bring sight to ALL the spiritually and physically blind, they remained blind to the big picture.

They were so blind that they skipped right past Jesus’ painful pronouncement of suffering and certain death, jumping like spoiled children to ask for status in the life to come. They may as well have said, “Wow Jesus. If you’re going to be THAT kind of king, then can we sit next to you? Do we get a crown? What color will my robes be?” Which—spoiler alert–Jesus then contrasts with a physically blind man who asks Jesus not for privilege but for mercy.

The irony that jumps off the page is that Bartimaeus COULD SEE Jesus’ truest identity when the disciples could not.

I heard recently about a strange but real innovation in tourism. It’s known as “sightseeing for the blind.” If it sounds like a cruel and insensitive joke, it is in fact a bona fide industry that enables the vision impaired to safely experience famous landmarks and locations through their other senses, particularly hearing and feeling.  It was these same senses as well as spiritual eyes that guided Bartimaeus to Jesus.

What a great lesson!  We would all be served by employing all of our senses!

What if we asked ourselves if what we think we are seeing is accurate?  What if when a person in our circle is acting mean, we ask if there something behind the behavior that we are not seeing?  Is God placing before us clues to spiritual transformation that we are missing because we don’t know to look for them?  We cannot see what we do not think is there?

If we think God is a nice idea but an absentee parent we’re secretly mad at–what if we’re not seeing the evidence that God is very much present! Even when we do not SEE God, God is there!

Bartimaeus could not see but Bartimaeus wanted to see.  Bartimaeus could see that Jesus was coming near and he called out. Jesus answered.

Be like Bartimaeus. Open your hearts and your eyes to God and you will see.

Amen.