the tentmaker

daily thoughts on the common lectionary

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Location: Sharpsburg, Georgia, United States

"...because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers." Acts 18:3. Tentmaker is a title taken by bi-vocational pastors. As such, I am both a pastor and a project manager. I am a pastor of a local congregation of moderate, accepting and affirming people who worship in the Baptist tradition. We call our church "Hope Memorial Baptist" and we are about 40 in number. I am also a project manager of major construction projects for the State of Georgia. My home and church is in rural Coweta County, between Peachtree City and Newnan, with a mailing address of Sharpsburg, Georgia.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Year B - Ordinary 26

Numbers 11:4-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

This sermon is a joining of two of Dylan Brewer's last two lectionary posts here and here. Thanks Dylan for what you mean to me in my ministry and my formation.

It is appointed unto man, once, to die.

Last Sunday we read these words of Jesus:

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me...’

What was Jesus talking about when he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me"? I've heard many a sermon linking this to Mark 10:13-16, in which Jesus says,

"it is to such [children] that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it,"

and speculating about what qualities children have that Jesus is saying should appear among his followers:

a child's innocence?

The problem with most of these readings is that they depend on a romantic view of childhood, a view that is key in most movies by Stephen Spielberg but foreign to the cultures that produced the New Testament. Such readings overlook something that would occur immediately in the minds of adults in the first-century Mediterranean world, especially parents:

Fewer than half of the children born would make it to adulthood.

In other words, the most prominent characteristic of children for most first-century readers of this text would be that children are extraordinarily vulnerable — perhaps the most most vulnerable in their society. First-century parents loved their children, as all parents do, and children were also celebrated as the closest thing to social security there was in the ancient world — if you were lucky enough to make it to old age, your children would most likely be your only means of support once you could no longer work. But children were generally the first to fall when disease or famine struck, or if the family for whatever reason became refugees, and a great many did. Children were vulnerable not only physically, but due to their low status in family and society. Even slaves had more rights than children, slaves could inherit property, for example, but children could not; they weren't considered people for the purpose of inheritance.

In other words, Jesus said that God's kingdom belongs to those to whom the world said nothing belonged.

What does this say to us?

How might we live differently if we believed this to be true?

The world contends that the good things are OURS to enjoy, that we can and should take what we can get for ourselves and our families, because we think, "what is weak proves itself to be useless." The world contends that those whose "manner of life is unlike that of others" can and should be tested with insult and torture — especially if that manner of life is a challenge to us who are respectable and deserving people.

The world presents all of this as wisdom. Our scriptures present it as "unsound reason," spiritual blindness, a disaster. And the letter of James comes down even harder on Christians who act out worldly scrambling to grasp at resources, power, and status and to honor most those who have most within the church.

We get caught up in all of those kind of games, forgetting that, to paraphrase Lilly Tomlin, winning the rat race just makes me a prizewinning rat. I want to be more than that. More importantly, God made me for more than that. And so God offers you and me — all of us — a chance to be more than that, to opt out of the rat race, responding to the world's contention that we are what we can say is OURS, by instead looking at the world at every opportunity with the eyes of someone who, in the world's way of doing things, has been disqualified from owning and having.

We stop saying, "MY church," and we recognize that it's God's church, and God has made room for those God has invited.

We ask God to deliver us from the presumption that it is in any way up to us to decide who deserves what we all want for ourselves and our children, and to give us the vision and courage to receive every child — not just those we know or like, and not just those with whom we share a culture, a language, a social class, or a legal or genetic family link — but that we receive every child as a full, beloved member of God's family, as deserving as we are to share the good things that are God's gifts, gifts, not our property.

And we evaluate every system, every power, every choice based on what it will do for the most vulnerable, not those closest to us. In God's economy, that's the key index.

There is no mention of children in this Sunday's gospel, but Jesus said:

‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

The word used here for the people whom we are called to serve such that we provide no cause for their stumbling is μικρος, as in our prefix "micro-." It means "small" or "short" with respect to quantities and distances. When it's used of people in Greek literature of the period that produced the New Testament, it's used far more often to name adults of lowly status than it is for children — widows and orphans, those in poverty and those whose status in other ways shuts them out from what they need to get by and from the communities that might otherwise receive them. It is as true now, as it was then, that children are often among the very least of "the least of these"; when food, clean water, and medicine are in short supply, they're usually the first to die, and when abandoned or orphaned, they have little hope of surviving. But the "little ones" in this Sunday's gospel are not so much like the well-scrubbed cherubs in the Sunday School classrooms of middle-class churches as they are like the mentally ill homeless woman we drive past on the way to lunch afterward.

So why, then, do we read the passage as if it were about children?

I wonder whether some of it might have to do with fear. Few adults experience children of any perceived race or status as threatening, while that same adorable child might a few years later be treated with suspicion in the same crowd —

"He dresses like a gang member!"
"Is he from around here?".

Photographs of children in need of food or medicine elicit pity, while photographs of adults in similar circumstances sometimes strike a little too close to home, reminding us adults that, contrary to what our consumerist culture tells us, no amount of money or goods, education or status can shield us entirely from danger and disease, and those who have plenty, most often, suffer most from the creeping anxiety that it won't be enough to protect them from suffering.

Some of us respond by trying to accumulate increasing wealth, power, and status in hopes that it will insulate us from what we fear. Personally, I think that approach doesn't work, and that's part of why so many adults are so uncomfortable around another adult who is very sick or very poor. I think envy and rivalry — the kinds of behaviors against which Jesus speaks in the gospel as he refuses to condemn those who heal and restore people to community without seeking authorization from authorities first; and for which Moses chides Joshua in this week's reading from Numbers — envy and rivalry come from a similar place in our hearts. Too many of us spend too much time and energy in a constant state of anxiety because we imagine "the good life" to be a very narrow band of experiences — the good job, the good house, the good school, the good retirement plan, the good doctors, and the good lifestyle that will guarantee that we'll live a good, long time, free of pain and worry, secure that we've finally accumulated enough — and that we deserve it all.

Anyone who's tried this long enough and who's honest enough will, I think, admit that this approach doesn't work at all. No amount of power over others that we can seize will make as invulnerable as we like to pretend we are. We are creatures, after all, not the Creator, and I suspect that on some level we always know this; otherwise we wouldn't find it so painful to be reminded of the fact by our encounters with "lowly ones" at the margins of society.

I think St. Benedict's prescription, odd as it sounds at first in today's culture, is an effective one for our condition:

"remember that you will die."

In essence, that's a Reader’s Digest version of what our extended reading from James for this Sunday is trying to say. James reminds us of how futile and joyless it is to try to convince ourselves we'll live forever by accumulating possessions and resources that are just as transitory as our lives are. His letter reminds us that no amount of scrambling for status will make us as powerful as part of us wants to be — powerful enough to be invulnerable — and no amount of condemning our neighbors' faults will really convince us of how God loves us, because that isn't how God loves us.

God loves us in our vulnerability. Indeed, God made us vulnerable. After all, we are made in God's image, and if we want to know what God's image of a human being looks like, revealed as fully as we can receive it in this life — if we want to see what full, authentic humanity in God's image looks like — all we have to do is to look at Jesus. We look to Jesus, whose suffering with the "lowly ones" who suffer started long before his being sentenced to a slave's death on a Roman cross. Jesus journeyed with the "lowly ones" throughout his ministry. And by this point in the gospel, his face is set toward Jerusalem, and he knows what he faces there. Having accepted that, he doesn't need to look away from others' pain; indeed, he identifies with all in need of the most basic, immediate necessities —

a cup of water,
a day's bread,
a moment of compassion.

Jesus knows something that our culture finds it extremely hard to understand: God's power — the power that speaks light from darkness and life from dust, the power that sustains the universe — is not shown in shutting out those who are less powerful. The richness of God's blessing — the only riches that can truly bring joy or peace — is not enhanced by hoarding God's gifts. And Jesus' gift of what John calls "eternal life" — the kind of lasting joy, peace, and love for which we were made and the universe aches — eternal life doesn't come from vain and futile chasing after immortality. Instead, Jesus' words and example teach us, God's power is experienced in empowering the "lowly ones"; God's rich blessings are found in seeking justice for the poor. And the life and light of the world comes through Christ crucified; we will see God not by averting our eyes from the suffering "lowly ones" with whom he identified, but by looking with compassion in their eyes until we, like Jesus, can see the world through their eyes — until we, like Jesus, identify with all who share our humanity, the image of God in us. And then we will not be struck with fear when we remember that “It is appointed unto man, once to die.”

Thanks be to God.

Let us Pray

Deliver us, Lord, from every evil
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy keep us free
from our self-opinionated ways,
our clannishness and jealousies.
Make us recognize and appreciate
whatever good there is in people
as we wait together in joyful hope
for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.
For the Kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours,
both now and for evermore.


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