No One Is The Greatest (Mark 9:30-37)

In the 9th chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus asks one of the most critical questions of his life. It’s one that churches ought to post over sanctuaries, altars, and Sunday school classrooms. I know I give weight and almost hyperbolic importance to nearly everything Jesus says or does. However, this one is right near the top.

Allow me to set the scene. Jesus and the disciples are still in and around Capernaum. When they had entered a house (we don’t know whose home), Jesus asked them a question. “What were you arguing about during the journey?” That’s the question. You’ll find it in Mark 9:33.

We know that question like the back of your hand. It’s been a long journey, drowned out by radio fights and the occasional loud, unintelligible argument. Once you pull into the driveway, there is a moment of peace and a deep breath of relaxation. You are home. As you step from the car and make your way toward the gate, the steps, and the door the rumblings once contained to the car slowly emerge from those who managed to grab much less luggage from the back of the vehicle. It is then you realize that whatever argument or disagreement that ruined the last three hours of your car ride is about to cross the threshold into your home. The dispute about someone’s makeup, a text message, or who is in a relationship with “you know who” is not going to stay in the car. It’s nowhere, with you, blocking your way to the bathroom. Hence you feel the need to ask the question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?”

You know what the argument was about. Jesus knew what the disciples were discussing. He wanted to hear them say it. It was important, as we tell our children, for them to use their words. What did they think they were discussing? With some distance and a bit of perspective, what were they fighting about? Here’s what it gets silly. I know this will seem unbelievable. The disciples were debating each other on who is the “greatest.” Yes, that sounds utterly ridiculous. Grown men were debating one another about who is the “greatest” in the “Muhammad Ali” sense of the word. Can you imagine such nonsense? It seems so out of character for religious people to be concerned about achieving “greatness” in heaven or the afterlife. Do they not know Jesus is not concerned with status in the same way corporate America or the Roman Empire? My mind is blown.

No, it’s not. Nothing about this passage surprises me. What does amaze me is how infrequently we read Mark 9 and how we seem never to apply Jesus’ question to our own lives. “What were you arguing about during the journey?”

Who is the greatest Methodist?
Who is the most significant Christian?
Who are the legitimate heirs to John Wesley?
Who is the most revered teacher of tradition?
Who is the holiest interpreter of ancient doctrine?

There’s never been a more appropriate question for Methodists to asking each other. We’re all on a journey, and we’re doing an excellent job trying to convince ourselves (through various commissions and reports) that we’re not arguing with another. We know what we’re doing. No one is fooled. As one who loves a good argument, I admit this without hesitation or reservation.

Here’s the problem: if our arguments slide into calls for supremacy, superiority, and salvation through an understanding of our own prestige, you’re no longer following Jesus. An idea of one’s greatness mixed with a smug sense of self-satisfaction at possessing a monopoly on God’s truth will not lead us to the least or the last. Prominence does not lead to the Cross, flooded towns, separated families or anywhere the suffering call home.

Whatever greatness is, Jesus indicates at the end of this passage, it is the opposite of welcome. To seek influence is to build barriers between Jesus and those who need Jesus most. Power makes it challenging to welcome strangers. As we compete for preeminence in our churches and denomination, we are less able to embrace the most vulnerable members of our community. Greatness comes at a cost. We give up being the church. To remain the church we want to be we lose the ability to be the church Christ called us to be. The choice is stark, we can either be “great,” or we can be followers of Jesus.

Is there really a debate to be had?  I hope not.  Oh, if you’d like to argue with me about how non-great I am, I’ll be outside.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Advertisements

It Is Hard To Say “Amen”

 

My problem is not with prayer. I have so many prayers I need to pray. The prayers come easy, almost too easy. I can generate prayers in much the same way an application on the internet creates stupid names for churches or sermons. Words are cheap. Good sentiments are almost free.  I don’t have trouble praying. The hard part, for me, is saying “Amen.”

Once I mumble “amen” I’m on the hook. “Amen” means I’ve made the prayer more than words. Something which started as a two-dimensional rap session between me and my conception of God has now taken on a three-dimensional reality. “Amen” makes me accountable for the words I’ve said. No matter how silly or profound, once an “amen” is attached, my thoughts are now being held in the form of sacred escrow. I can’t touch or reach them until I’ve found some point of spiritual maturity. That might be today, tomorrow, or even next week. Whenever it is, an “amen” guarantees that I must speak words I deem sacred enough to call “prayer” and share them with God. Without the “amen,” prayer is no different than giving Santa Claus a list of all the toys you want for Christmas. You have no investment in your desires. Handing over a list and expecting all your wishes to be granted isn’t a prayer. It’s yelling at the universe and hoping God will give you wishes like a genie in a bottle.

“Amen” changes the dynamic in prayer. Both the person praying and the God hearing the prayer are involved in answering the prayer. We pray the prayer. We become the prayer. We become the answer to our own prayers. It’s through the action of the “amen” that we decide to take our concerns and celebrations to a level beyond ourselves. An “amen,” by its very nature, is a statement of purpose. We are willing to invite others into becoming part of our prayer.

Speaking with God is not easy. This is especially true for mild-mannered Methodists. Placing ourselves in a position to hear those around us and express our heart to God in times of crisis is no picnic. It was one of Moses’ greatest struggles. Pronouncing “amen” is also a challenge.  It is hard to say “amen.”  In one way, it’s like hitting send on an email. Once it’s gone, the message takes on a life of its own. Are we ready for God to take us seriously? After all, who are we to say such an important word like “amen”? I’ll tell you who we are.  We are those over whom many an “amen” has already been said. We are blessings so we might go be blessings in a world aching to be blessed.

Amen

Richard Lowell Bryant

What Do We Do Next? (A Post Florence Reflection)

What can we do now? We’ve got a variety of options. For the time being, we are confined to watching and waiting. The situation with the roads and the ferries which link us to the world around place us in a precarious position. Although we suffered limited damage, compared to others, we can’t be reached or reach out. This will soon change.

I am reminded of one of the underlying messages of the parable of the Good Samaritan. We cannot immediately fix things, but we can sit in the ditch with others. This is an idea which emerges from within the story. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked by thieves. The road, while open and traveled, was known to be dangerous. Victims regularly reported robberies, assaults, and murders. Roving gangs of thieves were known to work the roads, hiding in wait to ambush unsuspecting travelers.

For whatever reason, this man made the decision to walk the Jericho road alone. Before sunset on the first day, he was spotted, followed, and attacked. The ambush was swift and easy. Stripped and beaten, he was robbed of his material possessions. Luke tells us he was “half-dead.” I’ve always gotten hung up on the idea of being “half-dead.” After storms like Florence, Matthew, and witnessing humanitarian crises in the former Yugoslavia, Armenia, and Liberia; it really makes sense. Following a disaster, war, or severe illness we are beaten down, robbed of our material goods, our sense of self-worth, and we feel half alive. Somewhere between living the life we thought we knew and the present we’re experiencing, life is only a fraction of what we once experienced or defined as a whole.

Our house may be half full of water, or our bodies may be half full of cancer or our lives may be half full of love. For whatever reason, circumstances descended upon the road we were traveling and left us in a place we never thought we would be.

Now that we’re here, half dead in the ditch, who are we waiting on? Is it the Good Samaritan? Are we waiting for someone to solve our problem, fix our situation, and bring us back to “full” life? Or does our healing take a different form? Perhaps someone will come alongside us and be present with us in our half-ness, not try to fix us, and offer empathy and companionship even while we’ll still sitting in the ditch.

I hope so. The Samaritan encounters the wounded man. Because of prejudice and ritualized discrimination, he lives half a life as a way of life. Notably, he arrives on the scene after others have observed the reality of suffering and chosen not to help. For reason of piety, arrogance, and pride, they decided not to get involved in the sufferings of others. The Samaritan made a different decision.

We know about the Samaritan taking the man to an inn and offering to pay for medical care. However, what came first? Before he arranged for his care, he bandaged his wounds. Before dressing his injuries, he sat in the ditch and listened. The Samaritan is merely present with the man’s needs without trying to solve any more significant issues. Perhaps both men needed to sit together in the ditch and weep before the substantial question of restoring wholeness could be asked.

The story of the Good Samaritan is not only a parable of doing the right thing. It’s also about becoming vulnerable sitting with each other in moments of great pain and weakness. Many people (even before the hurricane) were in such places. It’s easy to be the hurricane, death, emotional, relationship, insurance, chainsaw, flooding expert. Tragedies are full of “Captain Obvious’ of the Moment”.  You can pontificate and tell people everything you know about the crisis without really opening yourself up to actually listening to the pain of the people you’re talking too. It’s harder to stop talking and listen.

The Saga of a Florentine Refugee

A beast with hundreds of horsepower has saddled up and has decided to ride west. Unleashing an apocalyptic fury on the open water, she twists and turns. Unlike the drunken stupor of Margaritaville bound Buffet fans moving from island to island, this machine glides with the slow, deliberate force of death. There is no executive order or emergency declaration which she will heed. She is coming, with her outlying riders of destruction and doom. And once you’ve stepped inside, rode hard, and given everything you know to the water; there is no going back. The beast owns you and you’re never going back.

One day, when the winds die down and the waters recede, the survivors will emerge from the ruins of our towns and villages. We will survey the damage. It will not be pretty. A modern-day Moses’ will release a drone from a bunker in the foothills of the western Appalachians. The digital bird of civilization will review the rubble and remains. Teams will begin rearranging rocks and moving trees in an attempt to regain control over a world that was never ours to dominate gives us a sense of purpose. We will speak of community, helping, neighbors, and pulling together. No one will utter the words climate change.

The great lie this beast brings to our shores is that it acts alone. We are led to believe Florence and her gang are an isolated event.  They collude with no one.  Florence is merely a larger than expected dot on a yearly cycle destruction and emergency management. These are lies. We are complicit in telling a lie. Florence represents the changing nature of our planet. It’s getting harder to sustain life in places in which we’ve taken as our God-given right to exist. That’s the truth. We’re complicit in denying the truth. While Christians will show great hospitality and compassion over the coming days as we respond to the needs of those impacted by this storm; our planet has real hospitality issues. Humanity is wearing out our welcome.

Until the beast turns north and rides into the sunset, we watch and wait. We heed and prepare. Store shelves are empty while panic gently ensues. Today, the roar of the beast’s engines isn’t as faint as they were yesterday. The plywood boards go up over the windows. Finally, our souls become obsequiously submissive to a randomly named metrological entity that has the power to kill us all. With each of these storms, there’s more on the line than any of us realize.

Be safe, be well, be blessed

Richard Lowell Bryant

Do The Right Thing (Mark 7:24-37)

This passage is painful to read.  It hurts in much the same way it does to read a newspaper article about a person of color being mistakenly shot by a police officer or someone attacked because of they wore clothing identifying themselves as members of a particular religious faith.  Do you know what I mean?  When you read those stories, one can feel a palpable sense of pain at a visceral level.  For me, Mark 7:24-37 has that same effect.

Mark touches on any number of issues relevant to Jesus’ time and our own.  There’s a glaring #MeToo moment driving the action in the passage.  A woman from a different ethnic and linguistic group, bound by poverty, and a mother to a disabled child encounters misogyny of the first order; all from the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  There is racism in this passage.  Ideas of race run through this entire story.  How do we know this?  This encounter takes us beyond the Mason-Dixon Line dividing Judea and Galilee.  When Mark says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre,” he crossed an international, cultural, linguistic, economic, and social border.  He went to another country.  Jesus went somewhere so close to home yet on the other the side an imagined line where everything was different.  The food, the smells, the history, and the traditions derived from places unfamiliar to Jesus’ own Galilean heritage.  Jesus came from the dominant culture to the east (or as we would say, to the north).  Perhaps, this is why he wanted to go somewhere where he was the odd man out.  Those around him looked different, spoke another language, and didn’t know much of the man from Galilee hiding in their midst.

Mark highlights their differences because he wants his readers to notice these distinctions.  He is telling us that Jesus is aware of these characteristics.  He’s asking, “Is there anything wrong with being a Syro-Phoenician, Greek-speaking, Brown-skinned woman?” No, there is not.  It’s only a problem when someone with those characteristics crosses paths with a misogynist Rabbi from Galilee.  Jesus’ makes her identity a problem.  That’s why reading this passage hurts.  You can say he’s having a bad day.  You can say he’s angry or only wants to be left alone.  In the end, the sad truth is that Jesus looks like a misogynist and a racist.  We should stop trying to explain Jesus’ conduct.

Jesus is awful to the woman from Tyre.  I wish she had a name.  We know Jesus’ name, Mark’s name, and she’s identified by her ethnic group.  Tell me there’s not racism in the Bible.  The Bible is one of the best books at merging misogyny and racism into one action.  What does she do?  She approaches him (ostensibly on his vacation) and asks him to remove a demon from her daughter.

This didn’t sit well with Jesus.  After all, he’d left the United States of Galilee to get some time away from healings and needy people.  The Son of God needs a break.  You’ve got to be kidding me.  When you’re the Son of God, that’s not an excuse I’m willing to accept.  The creator of the universe never gets to say no to a mother with a demon; even on vacation.

Jesus calls her a dog.  I also have no patience for Jesus calling anybody, let alone a woman, a dog.  He said, “the children have to be fed first (meaning the children of Israel)”.  She, being a foreigner, wasn’t a child of Israel, therefore a dog.  Did he forget that he’s in her country?  So let’s add rude to misogynist and racist.  He is calling her a dog in her own country.  Jesus is the foreigner in this situation.  That’s like the President going to Mexico City to raise money for the wall.

The woman is quick-witted.  She’s also nicer than most people would be in this situation.  “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  “Good Answer!”  Jesus says.  Was this some kind of trivia game?  It reminds me of a Bond villain trying to outsmart Sean Connery.   We hear sassy.  I hope she was mad.

Somehow this jolted Jesus back to a sense of compassion.  Jesus performed one of his trademark long-distance healings.  Mark tells us that she returned to her home to find her daughter well and the demon was gone.  So what do we do now?  Is this merely a weird story where Jesus comes off looking bad and we forget it ever happened?

What is this really about?  There is a good side and an offensive side to Jesus.  It’s essential for us to acknowledge both exist.  We don’t need to justify our worse impulses and awful behavior by pointing to the horrible things Jesus did in the passage.  This behavior is not worth exemplifying and sanctifying.  Even if we end up getting to the right place, the road we took to get there did too much damage.   To be compassionate and share God’s grace, we don’t have put people down or be misogynist racists.  We could do the right thing even if Jesus didn’t in this instance.  Mark tells us in no uncertain terms:  Jesus got it wrong.  Let us learn from his mistakes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

When It Tolls For You, Someone Else Should Be Listening

Three people on our isolated island community died over the long Labor Day weekend.  In a place like this, where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else, that’s a tremendous amount of tragedy. What do you do when one person dies?  You do what you usually do; visits, funerals, songs, eulogies, food, memories, and lots of grief.  What happens when death meets death?  Americans aren’t used to this.  Now we’re getting into refugee country, natural disaster land, or war zones.  We need time to deal with our grief before we move on to dealing with the pain of someone else.  Middle-class Americans don’t deal well with multiple deaths.

I’m not a big fan of euphemisms, especially the ones we use for death.  No one just “passes away.”  Life is too precious a thing to only let go and cease to exist.  No, at the very least, we stop fighting.  Life is a struggle.  When the battle ends, we die.  Eventually, fatigue takes over.  Death, with its sting, find us when we least expect to be found.  When that happens, we die.  The medicine stops working, the chemo fails, the drugs go too far, and the alcohol is more than any of our organs can handle.  Death calls the last shot.  Whether alone in a nursing home or on a bathroom floor where your corpse will be found in a few hours, God seems absent.  Where in these moments of hopelessness and abandonment can we insert a few memorable lines about hope and resurrection?

Eventually, that’s going to fall to me.  I’ll be asked to give a degree of structure to what Christians believe, God’s role in the afterlife, and the resurrection itself.  I should do this as quickly as possible.  We’ll need to sing, pray, and do a few other things too.  No pressure, no rush.  Of course, by the time I stand up, the initial shock is almost gone.  The scene will have moved from the nursing room or bathroom to the local church sanctuary.  We will all look our best.  Gone are the signs, smells, sounds, and language of death.  Instead, at a funeral or memorial service, we see the indications of life draped in black.  We confuse life with death.  Death is the one word we are reluctant to speak at funerals.  How many times do we hear someone other than clergy use the word “dead” or “death in a memorial service?  It doesn’t happen.  Death is absent as we talk about the dead.  If we leave death out is it because we believe we make room for God?  Even in the presence of the most powerful language the church can muster to talk about the reality of the resurrection, we’re still afraid to acknowledge this reality:  we’re all going to die.

God becomes present in the opening words of the Service of Death and Resurrection.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read these words.  I know, within the next week, I’ll read them at least twice.  It gets harder to say them each time.  It is hard to utter them without weeping.  This is because I wonder if we have any idea what we’re saying. Has the meaning become entirely lost?

Dying, Christ destroyed our death.  (Death looks very alive.  Have you seen what alcohol and opiates are doing to communities?  Death destroys people.)

Rising, Christ restored our life.  (Resurrection is life, it is all around us, in every sunrise, sunset, and newborn.  None of us have a handle on resurrection because none of us can come to terms with death. Resurrection is, to paraphrase Michael Crichton, life finding away.)

Christ will come again in glory. (I don’t care how you come.  Just do it.)

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Hardest Thing About Being a Christian? Washing Your Hands (Mark 7)

What is the hardest thing about being a Christian? It may be coming to church each week and being forced to listen to me drone on about religious stuff. Perhaps it’s making what we say, do, and sing impact your life beyond these four walls. You could be concerned about putting the right amount of church time in so you get in good with the big guy but you still want to go fishing and you really want me to move it along. (Whether or not God is taking attendance is another sermon altogether, I’ll come back to that one.)

Maybe the hardest thing for you is dealing with nitpicking, holier than thou, got it all figured out, and are confident they know Jesus personally types of Christians. I find this difficult. This is what the first few verses of Mark 7 are about. Jesus runs into a group of people who are pretty sure they have a pipeline to God and know far more than Jesus does.

You know the type of person I’m talking about. Is nit-picker too gentle a word? I mean people whose version of Christianity (or religion) is limited to and experienced within three or four very narrow choices: Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi. That’s the world they live in. Everything must be limited to these four options. If those alternatives aren’t available or people chose a different choice, then those who pick Diet Sprite, Mountain Dew, and Canada Dry are either doing sodas (religion) wrong or it’s as if they drinking nothing at all. They might as well be doing without. If you can’t have Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi you’re not drinking anything officially blessed by the soda fountain God.

The CDPD crowd (Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, Diet Pepsi) were opposed to Jesus. If he’d suggested free health care, balloon rides, and meals for everyone over 65 they would have found religious and social reasons to object to his ideas. It didn’t matter what Jesus said. In their eyes, Jesus was always going to be wrong. He wasn’t drinking Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi. He brought fresh water, wine, and Diet Mountain Dew to the party. You see how low they were willing to go to find something wrong with his actions in this passage. Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands correctly.

Here’s what you need to know: ritual purification and cleanliness are a big deal in Old Testament law. In fact, the reason it became a ritual probably had more to do with the notion that purity saves lives and prevents the spread of disease. Eventually, this public health idea becomes wrapped up in concepts of religiosity. You can imagine how what might have been washing your hands with water and prayer evolved into a more elaborate ritual. A can of Coke suddenly became a limited edition two liter that needed to be poured in a special cup in a sacred way. Are you getting the picture?

Now we got them, said the Coke people. We’ve got them on a health code violation. Jesus may have thought he was something, making bread appear from nowhere, casting out demons, and healing sick people. We’ll show him, by gum! You know you’re dealing with crazy people when they think the best way to stop Jesus is the ancient equivalent of Gomer Pyle making a “citizen’s arrest.”

Mark is quick to point out that Jesus did follow the law, even the hand washing proscriptions. It’s just that he and disciples didn’t do it in the old school, most traditional, Old School, way you great-great grandparents learned how do drink Diet Coke way when they were leaving Egypt way. Mark says if they went to the market, they took a shower before having a meal. I’d say that’s better than washing only your hands, right? On top of that, they cleaned all of their dishes; their cups, jugs, pans, and even their sleeping bags. These disciples were the cleanest group of single men you’ve ever met. But not according to the holier-than-thou nitpickers. The law, (Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi only rules) specify you must wash your hands in a specific way before eating. It doesn’t matter that the disciples have taken a full-on shower (i.e., provided their own Coke Zero). And so the Pharisees respond, “Mr. Jesus and your group of ne’er-do-well disciples have broken our shared religious law.” Doesn’t this kind of thing just get under your skin? And to think, Jesus has to deal with these kinds of shenanigans every day.

This is why I believe the hardest thing about being a Christian for us was also the hardest thing for Jesus. Jesus encountered difficulty, know-it-all people, too religious for their own good, and determined to use God as a means to alienate and judge others rather than bring people together.

It’s the showdown at the Galilee Corral. The Piety Police have confronted Jesus and the disciples. They are not washing their hands. Showers do not count. The Bible says their hands must be clean. How dare they contradict the Bible is such an explicit way. If people defy the Bible over hand washing today, what will they be doing tomorrow, wearing polyester?

Jesus answers the Pharisee’s assault with prophecy and practicality. In verse six he says, “Isaiah really knew what he was talking about when he prophesied about you hypocrites. He wrote, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from me. Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words.'”

Wow. Next, Jesus places his own spin on the verse: You ignore God’s commandments while holding on to the rules created by humans and handed down to you. That’s how you get nitpickers, holier than thou, hand washing, Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, and Diet Pepsi people. It was a 1st-century problem and it’s a 21st-century problem. We are as guilty as the Pharisees of creating a faith of limited means to access and follow God. If it doesn’t fit into the spiritual equivalent of Coke, Diet Coke, Pepsi, or Diet Pepsi, we don’t know what to do. And when pressed to offer more choices, we argue, debate, or panic, instead of providing a new flavor or means of meeting God.

When we ignore God’s good ideas to make rules we claim God created, endorsed, wrote, or delivered when God had nothing to do with those so-called laws in the first place; we create rituals and deem activities holy that have no place in our lives as people of faith.   Yes, Jesus was correct.  Nitpickers love to enforce rules they created.

Jesus ends the debate by reminding each of us that what makes us dirty (or unclean) is not the grime on our hands or bodies. It’s what on the inside. That’s where the real filth is. The one thing we need to wash is the human heart, the human soul, or our conscience. That’s what divides us from the world around us. Physical contamination is simple to tackle. Spiritual corruption can’t really be addressed by soap and water. We need prayer, and an embrace of the Grace Jesus offers. We need to make it easier for people to be welcomed in God’s house and follow Jesus. Life is hard enough, the church doesn’t need to make life more difficult.

Richard Lowell Bryant