“In Memory of Her”

Podcast: “In Memory of Her”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: April 5, 2020—Palm Sunday NL2

Mark 14:3-9

In 1983, New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza wrote a groundbreaking book, In Memory of Her, that highlights the marginalization of women in the early church, despite Jesus and Paul’s radical inclusion of women in their ministries. The story that best illustrates how women were marginalized is our reading today. A woman anoints Jesus’s head with nard, an extraordinarily costly ointment. Through the objections and cries of protest, Jesus proclaims, “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed…what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The irony, of course, is that this woman’s name is lost. To be sure, John’s Gospel identifies her with Mary, sister of Lazarus, but that is not the case in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. She is unnamed. Anonymous. And rarely have I heard, let alone preached, a sermon on her. It seems that Jesus’ words have not been fulfilled.

But in another way, they have been fulfilled. This unnamed woman, along with the other women who were part of Jesus’ earthly ministry, haunt the gospel. They aren’t flashy, like Peter with his alternating braggadocio and cowardice in the Gospel. Nor are they like Paul, with a wild conversion story. What they are is consistent. They are faithful. They are present—especially after the disciples desert Jesus.

And this woman understands who Jesus is.

The question of who Jesus is permeates the Gospel of Mark. From the beginning, the reader is let in on the secret: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” However, very few others know. Whenever Jesus encounters unclean spirits, he orders them to be silent. For half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes great pains to keep his identity under wraps, ordering those he heals to be silent about him (though this fails). His opponents certainly don’t know who he is. And the disciples—those who should have put two and two together—don’t get it until chapter 8. Even then, they continue to woefully misunderstand what being God’s Messiah means. They think it means power and greatness according to our human understanding of those terms. That’s why they grow more and more anxious and afraid as they approach Jerusalem. Jesus keeps attacking those false notions of greatness with a promise that he’ll suffer, die, and be raised. Three times he does this! And each time, his disciples desperately try to change the subject to something else—either on greatness or power or even trying to correct Jesus (which Peter hilariously tries to do).

Of course, they do finally understand—otherwise we wouldn’t have a gospel, would we? But this woman doesn’t need to wait until Jesus is raised on Easter morning. She knows who he is now, and performs an extravagant act of love befitting who Jesus is.

Anointing serves two purposes. First, remember who was anointed in the Bible. Kings and priests. They were anointed as a sign that God had chosen them to exercise that particular office. The dead were also anointed, as Jesus points out. This woman understands the paradox at the heart of the gospel. Jesus is indeed Messiah and Lord. He is, therefore, worthy (in the words of Revelation) of all “blessing and power and glory and might”. However, this Messiah’s destiny runs through the cross and the grave. This is a Messiah who, as Jesus tells his disciples earlier, will “give his life a ransom for many”. This is a Messiah who will have to die so that we can live.

As with the widow who dropped her last two coins in the Temple treasury, Jesus does not challenge her agency, but embraces her action—as an act of love shown to the Divine, and as a judgment on human standards.

The objections here are likely hollow. It’s the old rhetorical “whatabout” that’s plagued reasonable discussion since the dawn of civilization. The unnamed objectors are just another example of human resistance to Jesus’ mission. To be sure, Jesus has no objections to showing kindness to the poor. In fact, such kindness is a moral imperative in the Bible, along with kindness to “the widow and orphan”. But Jesus gets at the bigger issue—the absolute refusal to see who Jesus is and what this woman is doing for him.

And indeed, without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we cannot make sense of Jesus or his mission. Jesus, to unaided reason, looks like another would-be failed messiah. Or worse, as merely a good moral teacher who got killed for being too nice. The woman does away with all such human assumptions and reasoning and standards with a jar of nard. She shows us who Jesus really is—the Lord and Messiah of creation who dies to redeem a hardened and broken humanity.

On this Passion Sunday, that’s what the Spirit calls us to remember. Jesus isn’t just a teacher. He’s not someone who got killed for being too nice. And he certainly isn’t a Messiah according to our standards. Jesus is our Messiah and Lord and God according to divine standards alone. And it is because he is Messiah in his way that he can also redeem us by his death. It is because he is our Lord by right that he can give up his life to give us life. It is because he is our God that he can grant us grace in the first place!

The Spirit open our eyes and break our hearts of stone to see Jesus for who he really is, as this woman saw him. May we always remember what she has done, and more importantly, who she is. Though she is unnamed, she is remembered by God. And wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, at this pulpit and at every pulpit, she is honored. She is remembered.

Let us pray.

Lord Christ, those persons the world deemed marginal were those who were most faithful to you during your earthly ministry. Help us to be faithful to you as she was. Enlighten our hearts and minds to understand that you came to us, not as a conqueror, but as a servant Messiah, laying down your life for many. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

“When the World Crumbles”

Podcast: “When the World Crumbles”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: March 29, 2020—Lent 5

Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

As I was preparing this sermon on this Gospel text, R.E.M.’s 1987 hit, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”, sprung to mind. It’s had moments of recurring popularity. The run-up to Y2K, the aftermath of 9/11, Harold Camping’s end-of-the-world prediction in 2011, fears about the Mayan Long Count calendar in 2012, and now, as we hunker down from COVID-19.

It’s natural for human beings to wonder and worry about the end of the world. So natural, in fact, that some people have turned that wonder and fear into a business. The late Tim LaHaye, along with Jerry Jenkins, capitalized on the apocalyptic fervor of the ‘90s and early 2000s by writing the Left Behind series. Jim Bakker is still hawking survival kits on television, despite his fall from grace in the 1980s. Perhaps most notoriously, Hal Lindsay, who wrote The Late Great Planet Earth and predicted the Second Coming multiple times in the 1980s, is still on TBN! But lest we Lutherans gloat, we might want to remember that Martin Luther firmly believed that the pope was the Antichrist described in the First Letter of John. He also connected plagues and wars in his time with end-times prophecy in the Gospels and the book of Revelation. While Luther wrote that he “could not find Christ” in his first preface to Revelation, he goes all in on end-times speculation in his second preface, embarrassingly so.

With today’s Gospel, therefore, we need to be extremely careful. One summer, I worked at Behren’s in Winona, Minnesota, galvanizing metalware. To prepare the product for the liquid zinc, we had to wash the metalware, first in sulfuric acid, and second in ammonia. Protective wear was necessary, even when it was 100 degrees on the factory floor, otherwise it would eat a hole through your clothes. Sometimes I think we should put on spiritual protective wear before we handle a passage like this for a similar reason. If we tie current events too closely to a passage like this, we risk burning holes in our relationships with our neighbors. We categorize one group of people as righteous and the other as hell-bound, when in fact that judgment is way above our pay grade.

With that in mind, our Gospel picks up where we left off last week. Jesus has just noticed the woman putting her last two coins in the Temple treasury. As they leave, the disciples make a remark that prove just how “country” they are. “What large stones and what large buildings!” They’re like tourists in New York gawking at the Empire State Building. Jesus is not impressed. “Yeah. About that. It’s all coming down.”

We need to pause a moment to realize two things. First, what Jesus says must have shocked his disciples. Remember that ancient Jews believed that the Temple was where the presence of God dwelled on earth. It was the center of the cosmos for them. By prophesying the fall of the Temple, Jesus is prophesying nothing less than the end of the world as they know it.

The second thing to realize is that Jesus is right in line with Jewish prophetic tradition, specifically Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who both spoke against the corruption of the Temple in their day.

Jesus says that their world is going to crumble. Everything that follows is teaching on how to respond amid such chaos.

James, John, Peter, and Andrew ask him privately to elaborate about when this will be, but Jesus doesn’t answer the question until verse 32, where he says that only the Father knows. Even Jesus doesn’t know when the end will be! Besides, for Jesus, knowing the date is not important. Trying to suss out the end-times timetable helps absolutely no one. What is more important is how we live now.

See, apocalyptic literature in Scripture has one overarching purpose—to give the faithful hope when the world is going to hell. Whatever happens in our world, Jesus reminds us that the present darkness is not everlasting. Wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines—Jesus says we need not fear any of these. No, rather, Jesus calls us to watch for him, not in anxiety. Not in fear. But in hopeful expectation.

Notice what Jesus says in verses 28-29. After describing his return, using imagery from Daniel 7, Jesus uses an unexpected image—a fig tree in spring. Considering what Jesus just did to a fig tree in chapter 11, the image is startling! Jesus likens the end of the world to…a budding fig tree. He likens it to the onset of summer, not winter. (Make your own comparisons to Game of Thrones!) The end is really going to be a new beginning.

And that is right in line with what we hear in Revelation 21, where the new heaven and new earth arrive. God is making all things new. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky stuff; this is assurance that God is working within and around us now. That God is doing new things now. That glimpses of that new creation can be seen now, even when all that is before us is a crumbling world. In fact, one way God’s new creation might be seen is in how we treat our neighbors in the coming weeks and months.

Are we going to be driven by fear, swayed by false information? (Remember the “rumors of wars” in verse 7). Or are we going to use the brains and hearts that God gave us to respect, love, and protect our neighbors, whoever they may be? There are a lot of wolves out there today, who want nothing less than to capitalize on this virus for their own personal gain. But we, who belong to Jesus, have the Holy Spirit leading us down a different road. It’s not an easy road, to be sure. We have to pick up our cross, after all, to go down it. But it is the road that leads to salvation, not just for us individually, but for all people who belong to Christ.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, many of us are frightened. Calm the stormy waters of our lives, and remind us that the Spirit will lead us safely home. Guide our hearts and minds this week to love and serve our neighbor, whoever they may be. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

“Love in a Dangerous Time”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: March 22, 2020—Lent 4 NL2

Mark 12:28-44

Podcast: “Love in a Dangerous Time”

In 1984, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn released the song, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” Cockburn saw teenagers expressing romantic love in a schoolyard, full of life, and hope for the future—a future that seemed foreboding. 1984 was a tense year. The Cold War had reached a new low in 1983. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was spreading. Cockburn’s lyrics contrast hope and foreboding, expressing the overwhelming beauty of the world for the one who loves, combined with the sense of being on the precipice. Here are the opening lyrics:

Don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
The next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

When you’re lovers in a dangerous time.[1]

( Along with Cockburn’s recording, Canadian band Barenaked Ladies released a cover in 1991.)

This is a dangerous time for us, too. It appears that we may be in this for the long haul—social distancing, cancellation of school, in-person worship services, and other activities. The federal government has passed one $8 billion relief package and appears poised to pass a $1 trillion one any day now. Meanwhile, even famous people and our lawmakers are getting sick. We seem to be at the left end of the bell curve. With what the CDC is saying, it is unlikely that we, individually, will remain unaffected.

And yet, in this dangerous time, Jesus calls on us to be people who love God and love our neighbor, first and foremost, above anything else.

It may be comforting to hear that the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry was far more dangerous than our own. Remember last week’s sermon. A pandemic of panic had spread throughout the religious leaders. With Rome’s boot firmly on Judea’s neck, the last thing the religious leaders wanted was some upstart like Jesus to bring destruction down on everyone. Plus, they had their own interests to think about. Jesus spoke and acted against the Temple institution multiple times. Jesus threatened their meal ticket.

In addition to that, these events took place during Passover week. And Passover, you’ll remember, is the festival celebrating God’s liberation of Israel from another empire—that of Egypt. Thousands of pilgrims are streaming into the city for Passover. According to Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Last Week, Rome has prepared for any potential unrest by scheduling a show of force on the first day of the week—a military parade, featuring centurions, war horses, and most notably, Pilate himself. Borg and Crossan further suggest that Jesus’ procession and Pilate’s procession were held at opposite ends of the city.[2] The contrast could not be more stark. The military might of Rome, force exemplified, compared with the gentle Messiah, who rides on a donkey without bow, sword, shield, or any outward show of force at all! It truly is a time pregnant with tension, fear, hatred—but also hope. It was a dangerous time.

And in that dangerous time, with the world on the precipice, one of Jesus’ enemies asks him a real question. Not a trick question, like the one about taxes we heard, or the one about the resurrection that the Sadducees posed. No, this question, “Which commandment is the first of all?” is really the question, “What is truly important?” As finite human beings, whose span is like “the flower of the field” (thank you, Isaiah 40!), what is really important about our paltry human lives?

Jesus responds by quoting the Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Shema is a Hebrew word that means “Listen”). “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength.” The whole end of the faith of Israel is to love God. That’s what all 613 commands in the Torah are meant to do—to lead to love of God.

And then, Jesus quotes an odd section of Scripture (at least for us, but not for him!), Leviticus 19. Leviticus 19 is smack in the middle of the holiness code, which is a detailed set of laws about how Israel is to conduct itself, so that it “may be holy, as [God] is holy”. One of these commands is that the people of Israel are to love their neighbors as themselves.

Love God. Love the neighbor. That’s at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s what’s really important. That’s at the heart of the purpose for human life.

God can only command us to love because God is love. God loves us and our broken, tired world beyond expression. God is not an inaccessible unmoved mover, like the philosopher Aristotle taught, but God is a mover who likewise moves. God moved over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1, decreeing light, order, and life. God heard the cries of his suffering people Israel and rescued them from slavery in Egypt. God heard the cries of his people and prophets when their world ended in the 6th century BC destruction of Jerusalem. God saw a humanity crushed by sin’s power, and descended to us himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The command that called light out of darkness took on human form to bring us out of our own captivity to sin and death. To bring us into his royal family. To ensure we have a place with him, now and in the age to come. That’s love, folks.

God loves us, corporately as the church. And God loves you—yes, you!—personally. Even in this dangerous, uncertain time, God in Christ assures us of his love for us.

Of course, there is another story in our reading today—a story which throws a wrench into my nice little sermon. That’s the story of the widow who gives her last two coins to a broken and oppressive Temple system. How is God showing love for her? After all, Jesus just warned about religious leaders who “devour widow’s houses”. I want Jesus to rush up to her, grab her by both of her shoulders, and say, “Save your money! Don’t give to these jerks!” But he doesn’t. He just…notices her. And he notices her gift.

I want Jesus to be more hands-on here, like he did with the moneychangers a few days prior. But something is going on here. Something greater than meets the eye. The widow’s coins are the ultimate judgment against the Temple—and against any religious institution that refuses to love God or the neighbor. God notices her and uses her gift to pronounce judgment. She is loved by God, indeed. God does not rob her of her agency in this situation. She is a beloved child of God.

And because God notices the widow, we are called to notice her, too. To love all those who we might overlook as we love ourselves.

We are given this purpose for life as our good news. Even now, as we are a dispersed church. God loves us with a love that will not let us go, even in our most difficult times. And God gives us purpose and meaning by calling us to love in turn. Especially in a dangerous time like this.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, you called us back to the purpose of our existence when you named the greatest commandment. In this age where we are a dispersed, separated church, help us recommit to love you and our neighbors. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

[1] Source: LyricFind. Songwriters: Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”, lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Carlin America Inc.

[2] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week.


Podcast: “Caught”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: March 15, 2020—Lent 3 NL2

Mark 12:1-17

In such a time as this, when so many of us are worried about the coronavirus, we find ourselves susceptible to another bug—that of panic. We hear about the increasing number of cases throughout the United States. We implement increasing precautions at schools, workplaces, even at church to flatten the spread of the disease. We even decided to cancel in-person worship today. And while these precautions are necessary, and perhaps overdue, they can come with the impulse to hoard all we can and lock ourselves away for a more peaceful time.

We find ourselves catching a wave of hysteria. And with that wave, the reptilian brain in us takes over. And that has one message: self-preservation at all costs. Take all you can. Let your neighbor fend for herself. In catching such hysteria, we fail to be both good neighbors and good stewards of God’s gifts.

Our Gospel reading for today also takes in a time where people are on the verge of reactive panic.

This reading skips over Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem because of liturgical considerations. (We will read the processional gospel as we enter the worship space on Palm Sunday, April 5th. Pray that we return to in-person worship by then.) But we skip over a lot more, too. It’s a shame we skip over so much, but (in my humble opinion) we can’t cram everything in on Sunday. So, let me sum up.

Jesus enters the city in triumph, with palm branches waving and hosannas sounding. He leaves that evening, going out to Bethany, a town about two miles from Jerusalem. The next day after returning, he expels the moneychangers from the Temple, striking fear—panic—into the hearts of the religious leaders. They redouble their efforts to have him killed. The next day, when Jesus returns, the religious leaders try to trap him by asking, “By what authority do you do these things?” to which Jesus gives a rabbinic answer. “By what authority John the Baptist do what he did?” Fearful of the crowd’s wrath and Jesus’ rebuke, they say, “We don’t know.” Jesus responds, “I’m not going to tell you my source of authority either.”

It’s in this context, this context of tension, fear, hatred, near-panic, that we hear Jesus’ parable and the question about taxes.

It’s no shock that Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with religious leaders, variously described in Mark as the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Herodians (which may have been a sect of Hellenistic Jews or a pure political party—either way, they’re described as opponents of Jesus). And Jesus takes his cue from the Jewish prophetic tradition in telling this parable—namely, Isaiah 5 and the image of the vineyard.

In Isaiah 5, God likens his people to a carefully planted and tended vineyard. Despite God’s careful management of the vineyard, it yields a rotten harvest. In this parable, though, the problem isn’t with the vineyard itself, it’s with those who are leasing it.

In the vineyard, those who are leasing seem to think they have the right to own. And to defend that imaginary right, they obstruct any attempt by the owner to reach them with his due. In other words, they are fearful. They are fearful of anyone whom the owner sends. They are even fearful of the son, whom they kill. The religious leaders easily connect the dots and realize that Jesus is likening them to the bad tenants in the vineyard of Israel. In another sense, Jesus takes a note from Ezekiel 34, which lambastes the leaders of Israel for their predatory behavior. Notice how they react. Not in a self-reflecting sense. But in fear. Jesus has told the truth about them—that they abuse God’s people Israel and mistreat God’s servants. Now they want to catch Jesus. Get the crowd to see who they think he really is.

You gotta wonder whose bright idea it was to pose the question about taxes. Really? Like they didn’t realize that Jesus would call them out for even possessing one of those coins, which in Jewish law broke the First Commandment, to begin with. While it seems like a brilliant trap, it’s little more than a harebrained reactionary scheme to try to turn the crowd against Jesus. And of course it doesn’t work. It’s Caesar’s coin, with his image. What’s it worth compared what God has imprinted God’s image upon?

All of this could have been a learning moment. And indeed, next week we’ll hear about one scribe who had such a moment. But the majority dig their heels in. This Jesus is a threat. He has to be dealt with. They have succumbed to their fear.

Perhaps it is in times like that and times like these, when the atmosphere is tense with fear, that we are given the best opportunities for learning. Not just for learning about how we might act a little too much like the tenants in anxious times, but also for learning about what God’s kingdom is really about—about agape love, about mercy, about a grace and giving beyond words. Having given us mercy beyond words, he invites us to model that mercy to others. To remember that we are made in God’s image and are therefore precious to him. He gave himself for us, we can therefore give ourselves for him.

Instead of catching fear, Jesus makes it possible for us to catch love. As the First Letter of John 4:18-19 reads:

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.

God’s love in Christ makes our love possible. That love overcomes fear, enlightens darkness, and even conquers death. That’s what we can cling to, even in times like these.

Please pray with me.

Lord Jesus, you know that we live in an especially anxious time. Bring healing to those who suffer from COVID-19, and strength for their families. Give all health care workers courage and caution, strength and resolve as we go through the days and weeks ahead. Free us all from the infection of fear. Replace it with your love, which casts out all fear, and enables us to love you and others. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.


Podcast: “Audacity”

Pr. David Fleener

March 8, 2020—Lent 2 NL2

Mark 10:32-52

There’s an anecdote about an old seminary professor who required his students to write and submit ten original prayers. Each prayer would be graded for theological content and appropriateness for public worship. The students were taken aback. “You can’t grade a prayer!”

The professor replied, “Watch me!”

Grading prayers might sound wrong, but this professor had a point. When we pray as the assembly of believers, the body of Christ, we are calling upon the one true God, Trinity-in-Unity and Unity-in-Trinity, who was, is, and is to come, the Alpha and the Omega, who was before there was a was, and who will be after all ages have passed. We are calling upon the one who created all that exists by divine decree, who hovered over the waters of chaos and called everything forth. We are calling upon the one who is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and yet, in a paradox way above my pay grade, is also all-loving, to the point of taking human form for the sake of his beloved creation. When we think for just a few moments about just who we’re addressing, it makes sense for the professor to take prayer that seriously.

And while can laugh about how wildly different our prayers are than our everyday conversation, like this webcomic that’s made the rounds on social media for the past five years, the fact is that talking to God is NOT like talking to any other person. A human is limited and transient, but God is unlimited and eternal.

This is not my content and no copyright infringement is intended. The original webcomic is here: https://adam4d.com/lord-just/. This version was retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/dankchristianmemes/comments/ah1xz8/emily_wife_who_is_married_to_me_you_are_my_wife/. Obviously, there have been some changes since making the rounds on social media.

This isn’t to say God doesn’t want us to pray or that we can’t know God. God certainly wants us to pray. God commands prayer several places in the Bible. Psalm 50:15 says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you.” Or Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he will sustain you.” There are constant commands in Deuteronomy to remember God after becoming settled in the land. In the New Testament, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, and Peter and Paul exhort prayer in their letters. God wants us to pray.

The issue is with the approach we take to God.

There are two approaches in our reading from Mark. One would be graded well by our professor, and the other not so well.

Before we get to the approaches, let’s set the scene. Our reading picks up where we left off last week after the episode with the rich man. They’re back on the road to Jerusalem, and Jesus tells them a third time what’s going to happen when they get there. He will be arrested, condemned by the religious leaders, handed over the Romans, humiliated, killed, and then rise again. The disciples may be starting to get it, just a little. Mark tells us they were astonished and afraid. However, this doesn’t translate to full understanding. Yet again, the disciples change the subject.

Approach A. Try to rope Jesus into the “can’t-say-no challenge.” (By the way, this is an actual social media phenomenon—just YouTube “can’t say no challenge”.) James and John approach Jesus as if he was a parent to manipulate. “Teacher, we want you to do anything for us that we want!” Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t shut them down right away. but hears them out. “What do you want me to do for you?” “Give us the preeminent positions of power in your kingdom. Or as the idiom goes, let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left. John and I have been talking and he would be a really good secretary of state, while I could be your prime minister! How about it, Jesus?”

What is hilarious about this exchange is that Jesus first asks them if they can do what he is going to do—drink the cup that he drinks and be baptized with his baptism. They say they can, but they have no idea what they are agreeing to. They are saying that they can take the fullness of what Jesus is going to suffer on themselves. In words that give me shivers, Jesus tells them that they will indeed suffer as he suffers, but they won’t sit at his right and left hand. In fact, those places have already been prepared.

For whom, you may ask. For two criminals, who will taunt him on either side as he hangs on his cross. That will be the moment Christ comes into his glory.

James and John ask for honor and status, power and influence. These are things we all want. But Jesus reminds his disciples, yet again, that those who want to be the greatest will be those who serve as Jesus serves.

Approach B. A blind beggar, named Bartimaeus, has the audacity, not only to address Jesus as son of David, but especially to have mercy on him. Bartimaeus is a man at the extremes. He likely has no family, otherwise he wouldn’t be begging. He suffers from a physical ailment that makes work impossible for him. He can only sit by the road and cry out, hoping against hope, that Jesus will notice him and have mercy on him. The crowd tries to shut him up. “Get back in your place!” they seem to say. “Why would Jesus ever be interested in a nobody like you? Stop being obnoxious!”

But this man does not care what the crowd thinks. He knows that Jesus’ mission is about mercy, not displays of power and majesty. Bartimaeus gets what these disciples can’t get yet. Jesus is here to show humanity mercy, not lord it over them. Jesus is our king and our judge, yet he is not a king and judge according to the standards of the world. Jesus’ standards are those of service. Of mercy.

And Jesus does show mercy to this man. This man wants to be healed. He is propelled forward to Jesus, like steel to a magnet. Jesus asks him the same question he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” This time, the answer is different. “Let me see again.” After Jesus heals him, he tells him to go, and the man follows. This man has found a new family, a new home with his teacher, healer, and savior.

And so, how might we approach Jesus in our prayer?

Jesus reveals to us a God always ready to show mercy. When we approach Jesus as the revealer of God’s mercy, we do better than the usual approach of the prosperity gospel folks, who are always asking for more and more. When all we can say is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we are praying in the spirit of Bartimaeus. And while Jesus doesn’t grade our prayers like the seminary professor, our prayers do say a lot about what we believe about God, the world, and ourselves.

We may also keep in mind that Jesus wants us to have the audacity to call upon him as the giver of mercy, like Bartimaeus. James and John were audacious too, but they misunderstood what messiahship meant for Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus was gentle with James and John and is gentle with us in our prayers. Whether God answers our prayers with yes, no, or wait, God does answer. And God is gentle. And the Spirit, working within us, will constantly guide us into better prayer. Of better ways of being with and relating to the God who is always communicating with us. Of being in greater harmony with God who is our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier

That’s what it means to pray to Jesus as the Lord of mercy. Have audacity. Have faith in Jesus as the giver of mercy. And the Spirit continue to guide us into greater harmony with Christ, who loved us so much he gave himself completely to show us mercy. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.


Podcast: “Possession”

Sermon: Lent 1—March 1, 2020 (NL2), Mark 10:17-31

Pr. David Fleener

          Before we moved to Alexandria, I would have sworn that we didn’t have many possessions, and that many of the things we had could be sold in a garage sale or given away.

          So we had a garage sale.

And we did rid ourselves of a lot of extraneous items—clothing, old shoes, old books that I knew I would never read, knick-knacks, musical instruments I had stopped playing. Even nail polish!

And we gave quite a few things away. Old wine glasses, white-elephant gifts from Christmas parties past, tacky dining ware, kitschy art, and so on.

          But if you look at the screen, you’ll see that everything we sold or gave away barely made a dent in our possessions.

Many of you know that personally after helping us move!

          On moving day in Hartford City, the movers said that if they had a nickel for every time they heard, “I don’t have much stuff,” and it turned out they had two or three tons weight of stuff, they would be rich!

          There’s something insidious about stuff, though. When I moved from La Crosse, Wisconsin to Hartford City, I moved from a one-bedroom apartment to a four-bedroom house. When you move into a space that large, stuff breeds. Before I knew it, I had a house full of stuff.

          And it was amazing how much time and attention some of that stuff took. Putting furniture in the right place, arranging knick-knacks, dusting, watching TV, using computers, etc.

          Did we own our stuff, or did our stuff own us?

          As we journey through Mark’s Gospel, we’ve noticed a lot of demonic possession. This doesn’t sit well with our contemporary Western view of the world, in which everything is presumed to have a scientifically verifiable reason behind it. Nevertheless, Mark’s Gospel has no regard for our contemporary sensibilities and shows us the world as the early disciples of Jesus saw it, spirits and all.

          So we can gain a foothold into Mark’s world, I’ve likened possession to other forces that take control of our lives, like addictions. But here, we have another kind of possession story—one that we can understand better because it is about possessions. Perhaps we understand it too well—it would explain why so many preachers, myself included, have tried to dodge Jesus’ crystal-clear words.

          The story of the rich man starts out eerily similar to the story of the demon-possessed man in Gerasene. Both men come to Jesus, fall before him, and say something true about him. But in the case at Gerasene, the unclean spirit knows full well who Jesus is, and is therefore fearful. The rich man truthfully, though unwittingly, describes Jesus as good. The rich man doesn’t even know how desperate his situation is.

          Both men are possessed. Controlled by something outside themselves. The Gerasene man is clearly controlled by an evil spirit. But the rich man is controlled by something far more subtle. Perhaps more sinister because it is hidden. It is passive possession—idolatry—as opposed to the Gerasene man’s active possession by an unclean spirit. That’s why the man at Gerasene could not assert like the rich man, “I have kept all these things since my youth.” The rich man does assert this, and we can presume that he is sincere. We might be skeptical about whether or not he actually kept the commandments, but the important thing here is that he believes he has kept them. And it is likely that he has made a good-faith effort to keep them.

          But it isn’t enough. The rich man probably knows this, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked Jesus about it. The question is filled with anxiety, isn’t it? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Imagine asking a similar question to your parents. “What must I do to be included in the will?” Lots of anxiety!

          But Jesus takes it seriously. Jesus goes over the Second Table of the Commandments, which concern our relationships with our neighbors. The man asserts that he has kept them. Then something remarkable happens. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Mark uses an intensified version of the Greek verb “to see”, which may mean “to gaze” or “to look carefully”. Jesus looks deeply into the soul of this man and he sees that which possesses him. That which keeps him from fulfilling the commandments. That in which he trusts. He sees this man’s god. And nevertheless, he loves him

          It’s a pastoral moment. And it’s a moment for truth-telling. “You lack one thing,” Jesus says, “Go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

          Jesus’ words, once again, are shocking and offensive because they target that which the man holds so dear, those things he trusts in rather than God. Jesus does the same thing with us.

Passive possession—idolatry—is usually possession by something good in and of itself. Nevertheless, these good things, which can include family, country, occupations, or our possessions, can take control of our lives. They can keep us from following Jesus. They can keep us from really living our lives now in the way that our Creator intended. They can keep us from unity with Christ.

          Perhaps this kind of life, this kind of unity with Christ is what Jesus is talking about when he takes the opportunity for a teaching moment, saying, “How hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God!” This shocks the disciples because wealth was (and still is in many places) regarded as a sign of God’s blessing. It was a sign that these people were chosen by God. If they can’t enter the Kingdom, who can?

          Now we finally get to the gospel—the gospel which does not excuse but transforms. “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

          It is possible, even then, for God to transform the rich man’s heart so that he can have union with Christ, putting his trust in the only one worthy of it.

          It is possible for God to transform us, as addicted to and possessed by the things that we seem to endlessly accumulate.

          And it is possible for us, through the Spirit, to trust in the one who guarantees our inheritance, both now and in the age to come. Poor Peter, who thinks he has to remind Jesus, “Hey, remember us? We left everything to follow you! There’s something in it for us, right?”

          Jesus reminds him that indeed, those who follow him find a community, a family so much greater than they could have imagined. This has nothing to do with the “seed money” theory that the prosperity gospel preachers hawk—a way to manipulate God into doing what we want. This has everything to do with the nature of the Church. The Church is a community of transformed persons, one in Christ, who love each other as Christ loves them. This is a community of people called to resiliency; to character in Christ who makes them citizens of his Kingdom by his grace alone, transforming their hearts. This is a community of people who not only receive the good news that they have been welcomed into the Kingdom of God, but who live it out in their lives.

          Possessions may try to possess us, but only one has a rightful claim on us. And Christ’s ownership of us sets us free from everything that keeps us from the love of God and each other. We are far, far more than what we have or what we can accumulate. Transformed in the Spirit and living in the gospel, let’s live lives worthy of that truth. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

“Amazing Grace”

Podcast: “Amazing Grace”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Ash Wednesday—February 26, 2020

Mark 9:30-37

          As many of you probably know, the hymn “Amazing Grace” has a fascinating history behind it. The author, John Newton, had lived a brazenly degenerate life. He was conscripted into the Royal Navy, and after he deserted, was traded to a slave ship. He was frequently disciplined for disobedience—not for any high moral principle, but simply because he was a jackass. He wrote obscene poems and songs about the captain, which became highly popular among the crew! He was an extraordinarily erudite curser, which was remarkable for a profession that is known for it. Not only did he use the worst words the captain had ever heard, he also was a prolific wordsmith of new ones! (One wonders what a “best of” John Newton compilation would read like.) To discipline him, he was starved, imprisoned, and eventually enslaved, working on a plantation in Sierra Leone, which is on Africa’s west coast. His father intervened, and he was able to return to England.

          The experience didn’t stop him from slave-trading. In March 1748, a violent storm struck Newton’s ship. Having tied himself to the ship’s pump to keep from being washed overboard, Newton said aloud, “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us!”

          Two weeks later, the crew landed ashore. Unlike previous times, where he had questioned God in a moment of crisis and went back to his old way of life, this one stuck with Newton. His conversion, like so many conversions, was not immediate. He became a captain on a slave ship, and the only vice he was able to renounce was his loquacious swearing. It was only after a health crisis at the age of 30 that he stopped sailing.

          In the 1750s and early 1760s, Newton discerned a vocation to the Anglican priesthood. He began to write about his experiences in the slave trade and his conversion, and finally, a friend in high places sponsored his ordination and assigned him to a congregation in Olney, a poor village. He was much-loved there, as he preached from his own life experience, which was quite unusual at the time. He struck up a friendship with author William Cowper, with whom he organized a prayer meeting. Newton also began hymn-writing.

          For each prayer meeting, Newton and Cowper attempted to present a new poem or hymn. “Amazing Grace” was probably first used in a prayer meeting on January 1, 1773.

          Even then, Newton was not an abolitionist. It wasn’t until he joined forces with William Wilberforce, the Minister of Parliament who led the charge to abolish the slave trade in the 1780s, that he advocated for the abolition of slavery.

          All this biography is not just because the choir is singing Amazing Grace. It is because Newton’s life mirrors the Christian life in many respects, especially the importance of ongoing conversion. And Lent is a grand opportunity to recognize our need for ongoing conversion, done by and through the Holy Spirit.

          Scripture shows us that the disciples also required ongoing conversion. Mark’s Gospel especially pulls no punches. The disciples come off as ignorant, power-obsessed, and fearful. Even after Jesus has given them authority to heal people and cast out unclean spirits, they fail   dramatically earlier in chapter 9, when Jesus comes down from the mountain after the Transfiguration. After the debacle at the foot of the mountain, Jesus goes with his disciples back to Bethesda. No crowds this time. Jesus has something important to teach; something he needs to drill through their thick skulls. He is going to be betrayed. He is going to be killed. He is going to rise again.

          But the disciples don’t understand, and moreover, after Jesus’ outburst earlier, they are afraid to ask him about it. They’re like children in a classroom (or, let’s be real, they’re like adults) who don’t understand something that the teacher has presented to them, but are afraid to speak up because a) they don’t want another outburst, and b) they don’t want to look stupid. Instead, they change the subject!

          The subject changes to greatness. While we can laugh at the ridiculousness of this change from what Jesus has just told them, it’s easy to understand. “We don’t get this suffering and death part, Jesus. Let’s talk about who gets to be prime minister in the coming Kingdom!” It’s a classic human behavior—if we ignore what’s going to happen, maybe it won’t happen!

          So Jesus gives these future leaders of the church a lesson in leadership. Do they want to be the greatest? They need to consider themselves the least. Do they want to be the best? They need to be servants. They need to be leaders who are known for welcoming the most vulnerable people, which in the first century would have been exemplified by children. Children were not the center of the household as they often are today. Children, while loved and protected in Jewish homes (the case was often different in Greek and Roman families), were the least in the household. Jesus reminds them that true leadership, true power in God’s Kingdom is different than they think it is.

          And so it is with our own ongoing conversion. There is an apocryphal quote out there attributed to Martin Luther, “We need to hear the gospel every day because we forget it every day.” Luther probably never said it, but it is true. We forget God’s amazing grace every day and the Spirit calls us back to it every day. We forget Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the life of the world every day, and the Spirit hammers it back into our heads every day. Every day (and Luther DID say this), the new creation that God has made us to be rises again. Every day we are renewed and raised by sheer, amazing grace.

          Lent is a time when God calls us to remember that we have been baptized. That we have been adopted into God’s family. And we are constantly being educated and converted. The ashes on our forehead will be a stark reminder that, after everything, we are still going to die. All our attempts at being our own master, as John Newton tried to do, ultimately come to nothing. All our hope rests in our merciful God who sent his Son to live, die, and rise to bring us into his Kingdom.

          This Lent, as we receive the ashes and hear the words of death, and receive communion and hear the words of life, God gives us an opportunity to listen. To ponder. To more deeply understand the life that God calls us to, both now and in the resurrection. To let the Holy Spirit renew our hearts in the faith we were given at baptism. Let this Lent be a special time for your continuing education and ongoing conversion.

          Let us pray.

          Lord Jesus, send the Spirit to renew our hearts and help us be continually converted to your new way of life. Thank you for never giving up on us. Thank you for your amazing grace. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.


Podcast: “Losers”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: February 23, 2020—Transfiguration NL2

Mark 8:27-9:8

          Imagine a hypothetical (and I truly mean hypothetical!) candidate running for high civic office. This candidate has massive sums of money at his disposal, the best administrative staff money can buy, enthusiastic volunteers calling and door-knocking. Imagine this candidate at a campaign rally, in front of thousands of cheering supporters. “I want to thank you for your support. We are running a great campaign. And I just want you to know that we are going to lose!”

          Something like that happens with Jesus and his disciples in today’s Gospel text.

Somehow, Jesus and his disciples are near Caesarea Philippi, which was an imperial city in far northern Palestine, the modern-day Golan Heights. They just came north from Bethsaida, on the Sea of Galilee. Why Jesus is there with them doesn’t seem clear at first. Caesarea Philippi wasn’t just Gentile territory. It was built on the site of a former shrine to the Greek god Pan, a god of nature and fertility, and was named after the emperor and Herod Philip. So, Jesus and his disciples are in a Gentile city, named after the Roman emperor who claimed to be a son of the gods, and a pseudo-Jewish ruler, which was dedicated to pagan worship. Why would Jesus go to such a place?

Consider the question that Jesus asks his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter hits it on the head, maybe a little too on the head. Our translation says, “You are the Messiah,” but perhaps it should read, “You are the Anointed One.”

Who else was anointed in the Bible? Kings were anointed with oil as a sign that God had chosen them for kingship. In the Old Testament, when Samuel came to Bethlehem to anoint David with oil, he committed a politically subversive act. You might even call it treasonous! (King Saul certainly did!) When Peter confesses Jesus to be the Anointed One in the middle of an imperial city, named after the emperor, and devoted to pagan worship, it is likewise a treasonous act. Never mind that Jesus isn’t a king like other kings—a king without an army, land, or any of the traditional prerequisites for kingship (save his bloodline, but Mark dedicates scant attention to that). When Peter confesses Jesus to be the true king, above every governor, tetrarch, and Caesar, Peter is saying that there is a power above these powers that claim ultimacy. That’s a statement that will get you killed.

And indeed, this moment that Peter recognizes Jesus’ true identity is the moment that Mark’s Gospel takes a dark, ominous turn. Jesus begins to explain what being God’s Anointed means. It doesn’t mean popular acclamation. It doesn’t mean victory over the corrupt Temple system and the even more corrupt state. Being God’s Anointed means suffering. It means rejection. It means death. It also means resurrection, but Peter probably didn’t even hear that far before he begins to rip into Jesus. Mark doesn’t record Peter’s words, but we can imagine what they were. “You have no idea how this messiah stuff works, do you Jesus? Rejection? Suffering? Death? Have you lost your mind? The script goes like this, Jesus. You defeat the enemies arrayed against us. You free your people, like Moses did. You usher in a real, physical, tangible messianic age of justice and peace for Israel. You make it very clear that God is on Israel’s side and that Israel’s God is the only true God. That’s how it goes, Jesus!”

But that’s not what being God’s Anointed means, not to Jesus. And Jesus condemns Peter’s rebuke in the strongest possible terms. “Get behind me, Satan! You are so stuck in your human way of thinking that you can’t see the bigger divine purpose at work!” You see, for Jesus, before he can win over the powers that cause all misery, destruction, and death in the world, he first has to lose. He has to go to the cross. He has to submit to the will of his divine Father, whom he will beg to “take this cup” away from him. Before Jesus can conquer, he must be conquered. He has to lose.

And then Jesus gives us the really, truly, offensive, and obnoxious thing about the gospel. This is the part that all the prosperity preachers on television conveniently skip over. Jesus expects us to share in his suffering as part of the Christian life. He expects us to pick up our own cross and follow him. This isn’t to be interpreted as masochistic, or as sanctioning oppression, or as undermining efforts for liberation and wholeness. To the contrary. Suffering in the Christian life has a cause, a point and an end. Its cause is all the trials we naturally go through as part of the Christian life in living for God and our neighbor. Its point is to conform us in the image and character of Christ. And its end is in Christ, who “suffered as a ransom for many,” and who “will come to judge the living and the dead”. To the outside world, we will look like losers. Who, after all, would pour themselves out for God and their neighbor this way, without any apparent reward on this side of glory? Who would willingly follow a Messiah, who, to all outward appearances looked like a failure? Luther felt so strongly about this, that following his theological hero, St. Augustine, he asserted that faith in Jesus Christ is impossible by our own powers. “I believe”, Luther wrote in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, “that by my own understanding or strength, I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.”

Indeed, Jesus has to disciple his disciples. Their faith is only comprehensible in a post-Easter context, after the resurrection and the unleashing of the Holy Spirit on the world. Jesus does give a wondrous gift to Peter, James, and John in revealing the fullness of God’s Kingdom on that mountaintop, but that vision can’t be understood until after Jesus suffers, dies, and is raised. No, that foretaste of victory is empty without the reality of the cross. The ultimate victory of Christ means nothing without his defeat.

So if Jesus had to lose in order to win over all the forces which keep us from God, why should we fear looking like losers to a world that has no idea what real power and real victory look like? When we are emboldened by the Spirit to carry our cross and live for God and our neighbors, we will discover what victory through the cross looks like. What Paul means when he says, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We may look like losers. But through Christ’s victory alone, we too have won. Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, help us to let go of anything that keeps us from carrying our cross. Continue to disciple us as you did for your own disciples. Continue to embolden us to follow you by sending the Spirit to guide us. With the Father and that same Spirit you live and reign, now and forever. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

Funeral Sermon: Richard Martin

Pr. David Fleener

February 22, 2020

Ecclesiastes 3:1-10; John 14:1-7

              Dear family and friends of Richard: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from Jesus, who has prepared a place in his Father’s house for each one of us. Amen.

              Last Tuesday afternoon, I happened to be in the church office—something of a minor miracle, as I don’t always know where I will be from day-to-day—and I received a phone call from Douglas County Hospice, asking if I would visit Richard and his family at Bethany. After checking with Deb, I arrived that evening.

              And I heard story after story about Richard and what he meant to his family. From Delores’ first view of “that handsome man” from her place in Shalom’s choir, to their travels (including a hilariously ill-fated trip to Las Vegas over Christmas), snapshots of Richard’s life and its fullness began to emerge, much like the video tribute that the family made to him.

              Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Richard’s earthly life had many different seasons for different purposes. From his naval service, to his work with Northwestern Bell, to his marriage to Audrey Dorphey, to his move to Alexandria after Audrey died, Richard weathered many changes. In 2002, when he married Delores, he found that season of life to be a greater blessing than he ever expected. As Delores told me that night at his bedside, “We had 18 wonderful years together.”

              And even though that season came to an end last Wednesday, Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel that Richard’s life is much more than just the snapshots we see or the stories we remember, as wonderful as those snapshots or stories are. Richard is much more than he was as we knew him. Richard’s life is ultimately defined by who he is as God’s child.

              Some 2000 years ago, Jesus’ disciples were grieving their master’s imminent departure from this world. Amid their grief and anxiety, Jesus reminds them that he is going to prepare a place for each one of them. That there are many dwelling-places in his Father’s house. And that he will come again to take them to himself. This is too much for poor Thomas, who blurts out that he doesn’t know where Jesus is going and cannot possibly know the way to him. To this, Jesus assures Thomas, the rest of the disciples, and us contemporary disciples that he is our way. He is our truth. He is our life. Whatever we endure on this side of heaven, we can take comfort in Jesus and his sure and certain promise to bring Richard and us to himself and to his Father’s house. Jesus does this not because of anything we have done or could possibly do, but out of sheer grace. Sheer mercy. Sheer love.

              And that sheer grace, mercy, and love of Christ conquers everything, even death.

              Even amid grief, we can have the comfort and peace that only Christ can give. We can have that comfort because, through our God-given faith, we have confidence that Richard rests in the blessed presence of God. And one day, God will raise him up along with all the faithful to share in the feast that has no end.

              Christ grant us all his peace today, and renewed faith in the resurrection he promises to each of us. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

“Family Traditions”

Podcast: “Family Traditions”

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: February 16, 2020—Epiphany 6 NL2

Mark 7:1-23

          Every family has its own unique traditions, from where to go on summer vacations to how holidays are celebrated. When I was growing up, I spent many summer vacations at the old family homestead near Wadena. Dad and I would fish the many lakes of Ottertail County. We’d also make the drive north to Bemidji, stocking up on winter wear at the Woolen Mills and visiting Itasca State Park for the umpteenth time. (If I had a nickel for every picture Dad took of us with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox….) For Christmas, Sarah and I had very different family traditions. Sarah’s family opened everything on Christmas Eve after the service, since that was the best time for Santa leave his gifts. For me, everything was on Christmas Day. I still remember the joy and excitement of waking up at 5 a.m. to see everything that Santa had brought waiting under the tree! As a good oldest son, however, I waited until everyone was up before diving into the loot!

          The varying branches of God’s family also have their unique traditions. Every congregation has its own way of structuring worship, serving communion, governing bodies, and the like. And many times, woe be unto the one who attempts to change from the traditional way of doing things! I’m sure none of you have ever said or heard any of the following statements: “We’ve never done it that way before.” “We tried that and it didn’t work.” “I’d be okay with trying your way, but I don’t think other people would be.” “Many people like how we used to do it better.”

          This isn’t to speak against tradition. Tradition can be good and useful. Traditions keep us from having to re-invent the wheel. In the church office, we aren’t thrown into total chaos each week with worship planning because we already know the structure of the service. Your Congregation Council can have a functional meeting because we know who is supposed to run the meeting and how motions are to be made and discussed. Committees can function because they have a traditional sphere of responsibility. With family traditions, you don’t have to think too hard about when you’re going to open presents or where Christmas dinner will be. You don’t have to constantly re-evaluate who’s cooking supper or who’s balancing the checkbook. Traditions free us to focus on other, more pressing matters.

          However, tradition can turn toxic. It can easily turn into a thing to be worshiped; an idol. It can stifle creativity. It can kill. Tradition can keep us mired in past events with no contemporary relevance; turned from whatever new thing God is doing.

          The ironic thing is that Jesus’ opponents in our Gospel reading today think that following their tradition closely, and imposing it on others, brings them closer to the life-giving and sustaining presence of God.

          The tradition in this case is handwashing. And I think we can all get behind handwashing. Ever see someone leave the restroom without washing their hands? If it’s your kid, what do you do? “Go right back in there and wash your hands!” We wash our hands because we know that it prevents illness. But this isn’t that kind of handwashing. This is handwashing done for ritual purity.

          You see, in Exodus 19:6, God tells Moses that the Israelites “shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Since the entire nation of Israel was to be holy, some teachers applied the washing rituals for the sacrificial priesthood to all of Israel. This was, in a positive way, to keep alive the faith of their ancestors, to bring their faith into their daily living. That’s all well and good.

          The problem comes when the ritual itself is to be followed for its own sake and not for any greater purpose. When the Pharisees confront Jesus about handwashing, he points out that their traditions, their attempts to live out their faith, turn out to be contrary to the word of God. Jesus points out that one of their traditions breaks the Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” If someone makes a gift to God and then cannot support their aged parents, Jesus says that tradition is contrary to God’s word. (As an aside, this does seem a bit ironic. After all, doesn’t Jesus disregard his own relationship to his family sometimes? Doesn’t he call those who do God’s will his “mother, and sister, and brother”? Yes—but remember that Jesus, as God’s Son in-the-flesh, is on earth for a specific mission—to proclaim the nearness of God’s Kingdom and demonstrate it through his works. No one, not even his family, may keep him from fulfilling it.)

          Jesus is far more concerned about what comes out of a person than what goes in, or what rituals they follow. Jesus reminds the crowd—and reminds us—of a greater tradition in God’s family, a tradition that goes back to Moses and the prophets. If Israel is to be truly God’s priestly people (and we, who have been grafted onto the tree of God’s people, are also included), they need to remember that what goes into them is not as important as what comes out. Every single evil (with the exception of so-called “natural evils” like natural disasters) has its origin in the human heart. When we, like the Pharisees, elevate the ritual to the status of an idol, we forget that God has made us his people and continues to make us more and more in the image of his Son.

          Because God has made us into his priestly people; a people who can pray for one another and who can love others as the people they are, not as the people we wish they were. When we remember who God has made us to be in our baptism—his holy people—then we remember that we have been freed from acting on our own impulses. Notice the evils that Jesus lists at the end of the passage. We are freed from every one of those, including those at the end of the list that we probably fall into most: envy (wanting what someone else has), slander (check out Facebook lately?), pride (setting up oneself as the center of one’s life), and folly. Because Jesus has made us his own, we are freed from those things which damage our relationship to God and to our neighbor. Instead, we are freed from our impulses to serve God and our neighbor. As Luther says in his Address to the German Nobility:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.

          The second is only possible because the first is in place. It is only because God in Christ has freed us and made us a priestly people, a holy people, a beloved people, that we can be a servant people.

          That’s a family tradition that we can always follow. When we treat each other like the free people we are, with equal dignity and respect in God’s sight, then we are empowered to serve as Christ served. Thanks be to God. Amen.

© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.

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