Wednesday, November 14, 2018

All We Have

All We Have
Mark 12:38-44[1]
It’s not hard to see how much we as a people are preoccupied with our possessions. Especially at this time of the year. We’re already being bombarded by advertisements that seek to convince us that we don’t already have enough to be content. We need that newer TV, or that nicer car, or the latest and best electronic gadget. It’s the way our economy functions. It thrives when we go out and do our “due diligence” as consumers. That means spending money on more “stuff” at a rate that keeps the economy humming along nicely. We even have an index to measure this behavior: we call it “consumer confidence.” If we are “confident” consumers, we’re going to go out and spend our money on more things.
It seems to me that may be one of obvious ways in which our society fails to understand prosperity. Spending money becomes the measure of how well we’re doing. That we’re spending money on things we very likely don’t need doesn’t come into the picture. Nor does anyone stop to wonder whether all that spending is really a measure of our “confidence,” or a measure of our personal dissatisfaction with our lives. It seems to me that when we’re truly “confident,” we’re content with what we have, and we don’t need to go out and spend a lot of money on things we don’t need and may not even really want!
Our Gospel lesson for today throws the issue of wealth into the spotlight in a way that might seem rather uncomfortable. Jesus criticized some of the religious leaders who were so driven by their own conceit that they made an effort to look impressive with their beautiful robes and their “presence” in worship. He made it clear that it was all for show. He said that their “long prayers” were simply “for the sake of appearance” (Mk.12:40). In other words, they wanted to look like they were spiritual. But the fact that their real agenda was about themselves was revealed by the indictment Jesus made that they were defrauding some of the most vulnerable people in their society. It seems clear where their hearts really were—wrapped up in their own self-interest, their own image, and their own greed.
Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the prominent people in the community as well. When he was at the Temple, watching the crowd making their contributions to that vast institution, it was apparent that there were “many rich people” who “put in large sums” (Mk. 12:41). He then contrasted the paltry contribution of a poor widow: she “put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (Mk. 12:42). But Jesus made the point clear: “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:44).
What may not be obvious on the surface of things is that the Greek phrase that is translated “all she had to live on” could also be rendered as “her whole life.” Perhaps she had reached the place where she had exhausted her own resources, and she was offering herself completely to God, trusting him to care for her needs. The irony is that, from Jesus’ perspective, her gift was more substantial than all the “large sums” the others gave. More than that, she embodied the kind of attitude that Jesus sought from all those who would follow him: that we surrender all that we are and all that we have to God.
The Scriptures and the Christian tradition are consistent on this matter: there is something about wealth that has a way of taking over your heart and life. Jesus said it this way: “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). Jesus knew what escapes us so easily: our possessions have a powerful way of “possessing” us. Throughout the ages the antidote to this problem has been to place all we have at the service of God’s kingdom. The traditional term for that attitude toward possessions is “hospitality.” It speaks of a level of generosity that is ready and willing to share all we have with those around us, especially those in need.
While there are lots of practical reasons for giving, I don’t think that’s what Jesus was most concerned about in this setting. It seems to me that he was more concerned with what wealth does to us. From that perspective, giving is a spiritual discipline that enables us to remain fully human in the midst of this world and its goods. Practicing generosity may be the only way for us manage to keep from losing ourselves in our possessions while we live in a world where we have so much wealth. If you wonder whether this may be a problem for you, Richard Foster offers a fairly simple test: select your most cherished possession, and then begin to look for an opportunity to give it away. If that’s doesn’t come easily, I think you’re in good company.
In our society, wealth is not only something we desire, it’s a necessity for retirement! If that’s not difficult enough, our consumer-driven economy makes it almost impossible to avoid the pitfalls of our affluence. If we’re honest I think we all have to admit that we can get quite attached to our “stuff.” And all of this can leave us quite blind to what our wealth does to us and our humanity. The discipline of giving is a means of reminding ourselves that that we are all dependent on God for all of life, just like the widow in our lesson. More than that, we practice the discipline of giving so that we can free ourselves from the fetters of our possessions. And we do that by surrendering all that we have to God.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/11/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Energy, Intelligence, Imagination, and Love

Energy, Intelligence, Imagination, and Love
Mark 12:28-34[1]
It seems to me that we live in an age when it’s hard to focus on anything for very long. It seems that we always have something clamoring for our attention. Those of us who have “smartphones” may have “dings” or a “beeps” coming at us on a regular basis all day long. When I got my first “smartphone,” it was set to sound off at me for just about everything: email, text messages, calendar reminders, Facebook notifications, and more. It didn’t take too long for me to decide I needed to find out how to turn off most of that noise! Even without the “dings” and “beeps,” we seem to be tethered to a whole web of electronic connections.
But more than that, we all have a wide variety of involvements that constantly claim our focus. Between work, family, social life, civic organizations, exercise routines, financial obligations, church commitments, and others, it can feel like we hardly have a moment in the day when we can catch our breath. So much for the promise that advances in technology would give us more leisure time![2] I would say that technology has actually expanded the work week rather than shortening it, as some predicted in the 1960’s and 70’s. We’re accessible 24/7. It can make it difficult to focus on anything spiritual.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus answers a question that was much debated in his day: “which commandment is the first of all?” The question of the “first commandment” was, of course, the question about which one was the most important. The answer Jesus gave would have been considered fairly conventional: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk. 12:29-31) That was the shema (Deut. 6:4-5), which devout Jewish people recited every day. That he combined it with a “second” command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” would not have come as a surprise either.
There was widespread agreement that these two commands constituted the essence of what God wanted from his people. But I think then as well as now, the real problem is how to fulfill these two great commandments. I’m not the first person to wonder how we finite human beings can “love” God, the one who is both far beyond all that we can understand and also who is as close to us as the very air we’re breathing. It’s a question that St. Augustine framed over 1600 years ago: “What do I love when I love my God?”[3] It’s a question that continues to be asked by many who are willing to face the difficulty of living in relationship with the God who made the heavens and the earth. Just how do you have a relationship with a God you can’t see, you can’t touch, with whom you can’t have a regular conversation?
Some insist that we love God by maintaining spiritual practices like prayer, Bible reading, and worship—both publicly and privately. I would agree that maintaining our personal and public spiritual lives is an important component of what it means to love God. But those who have explored this question throughout the ages developed other disciplines as well: welcoming strangers, sharing what we have, helping others, and giving care wherever it’s needed. This echoes a theme that is biblical: we love God when we walk in his ways. I would say that we “walk in God’s ways” when we seek to live out God’s grace, mercy, and love in our own lives. And if we want an example to follow, I think we need look no farther than Jesus. He constantly and consistently lived out God’s grace, mercy and love. He devoted his whole life to loving God and loving others.
Loving God leads us naturally to the “second” commandment: loving others. Scripture says that we cannot love God without loving others (1 John 4:11-12, 19-21). What we may not know is that this “second” command comes from Leviticus 19. In that chapter, the Bible is actually very specific about what it looks like to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It means to refrain from oppressing your workers, cursing the deaf or trying to trip up a blind person; it means that we’re not to show partiality to the rich over the poor, slander anyone, hate another person, take vengeance, or bear a grudge (Lev. 19:13-18)! Of course, there are other Bible passages that spell this out with different specifics, but I think you get the idea. Loving God leads to loving your neighbor in the real ways in which we treat other people on a daily basis.
In these distracted times, it can be difficult to keep our focus on these matters. The push and pull of life constantly drags us away from our primary calling: to love God and to love our neighbors. It’s not always easy to determine what that kind of love looks like in practice. I will say this: if we take it seriously, it will claim all that we are, and call forth the best we can give. Those of us who are ordained officers in the Presbyterian Church take an oath to serve others with “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” That’s not a bad way to approach trying to fulfill the two great commands. As we offer all that and more to God, I think we are setting out on a journey of discipleship in which we are constantly learning what it means to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/4/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] First introduced by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics (September 1960): 26-27, 74-76.
[3] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 10.6.8.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Faith in Jesus

Faith in Jesus
Mark 10:46-52[1]
We live in a world in which I think faith is something that can be difficult for many of us. To be sure, there are those among us who have the ability to maintain their faith no matter what this world throws at them. But there are others who may have a more difficult time with faith. There may be a number of reasons for this. Some of us are simply skeptical by nature. When we see or hear something, we tend to question it. Others of us may have experienced too much of the selfishness and dishonesty that can reside in the human heart. That can make it difficult to place our faith in anyone or anything. Still others may simply not know how to choose from all the competing voices out there.
But most of us have someone in whom or something in which we place our faith. We may have friends or family we trust so much that we will tell them our deepest, darkest secrets. Many of us share our lives with another human being—something that’s not always easy or fun to do! We take the risk of faith in those relationships because we are made for companionship. Others among us may have ideas that we believe in. These ideas represent the best of what it means to be human, and they give meaning and purpose to the way we spend our days. Most of us put our faith in something or someone. Without faith, life can be pretty bleak.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we find one of the encounters in which Jesus heals a person who is suffering. The interesting thing about these healings is that when Jesus heals someone, usually with just a simple word, he insists that it is their own faith that does it! He says to them, “your faith has made you well.” But the way he puts it could also be translated, “your faith has saved you.” The faith that healed them and the faith that saved them was one and the same. I think to some extent, the reason their faith did “double duty” was because it was faith in Jesus,
Not everybody put their faith in Jesus, to be sure. The religious leaders of his day whose self-serving hypocrisy he exposed didn’t. They saw him for the threat to their position that he was. And the wealthy aristocrats who were gobbling up all the land into vast estates and enriching themselves at the expense of the common people didn’t put their faith in Jesus. They heard him calling them out for their unbridled greed and the injustice it fostered. The Roman occupation force didn’t put their faith in Jesus. To them he was a mere man who could easily be crushed by the iron rule of Roman military might.
But the common people flocked to him. I wonder what it was about Jesus that inspired their faith: a faith that had a healing and saving quality to it. I wonder what this poor, blind beggar’s faith was in.  Perhaps he had faith that “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all” (Ps. 34:19). In that sense, perhaps his faith in Jesus was really faith in God. Did he know enough to understand that Jesus was the one uniquely chosen by God to bring salvation to Israel, and through them to all the families of the earth? I doubt it. Did he have the faith that in Jesus God had definitively entered our experience and had done all that needed to be done to really and truly redeem us all? I doubt that too. 
So what called forth this man’s faith in Jesus? Well, for one thing, Jesus didn’t rebuke him and try to silence him like others did. It seems that Jesus was well known for being “approachable.” So I think he must have put his faith in Jesus’ reputation for compassion and mercy. I think Jesus’ vision of the “kingdom of God” must have been a part of it. Jesus proclaimed that vision in his message of the nearness of God, which meant that the wrongs would be righted, those who suffered would be comforted, and the oppressed would find justice. There is a built-in appeal in that message, especially for someone like this poor blind man. To him, Jesus represented his one chance for new life. I think anyone who puts their faith in Jesus to that extent cannot help but experience healing and salvation!
I wonder whether there may have been more to it. For one thing, it’s my impression that most truly “holy” men and women have a certain spiritual presence to them. When you are with them, you sense the presence of God in a way you don’t sense at other times. I think Jesus’ own faith in God must have translated to people experiencing this kind of presence in him. When you read the Gospels for indications of Jesus’ own faith, you find someone who was absolutely committed to God’s will and God’s way, one who when people came to exalt him pointed them back to God, one who so entrusted himself to God that he was willing to lay down even his very life. I think Jesus’ own faith in God inspired the faith of the blind man, and it continues to inspire our faith today. 
Like many who have gone before us, we place our faith in Jesus because of his message of a world in which God would bring true justice, peace and freedom. We place our faith in Jesus because he embodied that message through the mercy and compassion he extended to the least and the last and the left out. But I think even more so we put our faith in Jesus because his very presence puts us in touch with the love and the hope and the joy and the life that is at the heart of all things. We place our faith in Jesus because through him we experience the one thing that is truly necessary—a genuine encounter with God. Though our world that can feel very joyless and hopeless, like the blind man on the road to Jericho we recognize our chance for new life that consists of hope and joy through faith in Jesus.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/28/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Giving Ourselves Away

Giving Ourselves Away
Mark 10:35-45[1]
When you look at the way we live our lives these days, it’s hard to dispute the conclusion that we as a people are to a great extent driven by our own self-interest. All around us we can see evidence of the fact that “self” exercises a powerful influence. From the way we spend our money to the choices we make about our time to the challenges of getting along with the others, “self” seems to raise it’s ugly head wherever we look. The simple truth is that we want what we want, and we don’t want anyone to stand in the way of our getting it. We are a people for whom “self” is at the center of much of our lives.
The sad fact about that is that we pursue our own wants and desires because we think that by doing so, we will find fulfillment and meaning in life. But whatever satisfaction we may gain is short-lived. When I was in seminary, I worked as a security officer for a family of billionaires. They had the money to get whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. But the individual families within the clan couldn’t stand to even talk to one another. Taking this approach to life misses one of the most fundamental lessons we can learn: our lives are not just about us and getting what we want. They are about much more than that. In particular, they are about serving others by giving ourselves away.
In our Gospel lesson for today, James and John, two of Jesus’ “inner circle” of disciples along with Peter, denied him in their own way with a rather audacious request. They asked Jesus to do for them “whatever we ask of you” (Mk. 10:35)! Now, he had already taught them that if they wanted to follow him they must “deny themselves” (Mk. 8:34) and “lose their lives” for his sake (Mk. 8:35). He had also already taught them that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). So  I think it’s safe to say that their request shows they had missed the point just as much as Peter had when he denied even knowing Jesus.
What they asked of Jesus is truly astounding. They ask for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hand when he came in his “glory.” James and John, like the rest of the disciples, still thought that Jesus had come to restore the glory of David’s kingdom in all its might, wealth, and prestige. Even though Jesus had just warned them again that he was going to be condemned and beaten and killed, they simply could not hear that. That doesn’t happen to the Messiah. In their minds, when the Messiah comes, he ascends to the throne of David, throws off the yoke of their enemies, and reigns forever!
This was no small favor that James and John requested. They expected him to rule over the Kingdom of God forever, and they wanted to be the ones to sit at his side. In other words, they wanted their share of the glory they expected him to receive! To grasp the audacity of this request, we only have to think about all the heroes of the faith that had gone before them: Abraham, Moses, and David, not to mention prophets like Jeremiah. And there were James and John, wanting Jesus to move them to the head of the line so they could share his spotlight. It’s hard to imagine a more selfish request.
In response, Jesus tries again to teach them. He points out how “among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mk. 10:42). The way he words this statement implies a critique of power at all levels. On the surface, it’s clear what Jesus thought about the way in which those in power throw their weight around. Beyond that, the phrase “those whom they recognize as their rulers” could be translated more literally “those who seem to rule.” That could simply mean that they’re the ones in charge. But the way Jesus worded that phrase was a strange way to put it if that were all he meant to say. It is likely that he was alluding to a significant theme in the Jewish thought of the day: the rulers of this world only “seem” to rule, because God ultimately rules over them all, and God’s rule has the last word.
I think Jesus was trying to help the disciples see through the external trappings of power and glory for the sham that it is in the light of God’s Kingdom. And so he tells them bluntly: “it shall not be so among you” (Mk. 10:43, RSV)! Once again he tries to break through all their pre-conceived notions of what he had come to do. More than that, he tries to break through their own egos to impress upon them that if they want to follow him, they must be prepared to give themselves away as servants and even “slaves” of all (Mk. 10:44). And to reinforce the lesson, he once again pointed to his own destiny—giving his life on the cross for the sake of us all. Following him would entail no less for them. It would mean giving themselves away for others.
We still seem to be dazzled by power and glory. It appeals to the selfish desires of our egos: to have whatever we want in this life. But that is not the way of following Jesus. The way of following Jesus is the way that leads to a cross. It is the way that leads to becoming the last of all, the way that leads to becoming the servant and even the slave of all. I would say that just about everything within us resists this kind of self-denial. But Jesus not only called us to give ourselves away, he also demonstrated what that looks like by laying down his own life. If we are going to follow Jesus, it means that we will have to give ourselves away. That’s not an easy path. I can guarantee you that if you choose to follow Jesus in this way you will find yourself weary and frustrated and discouraged at some point. But Jesus didn’t promise that following him would be easy. He promised that if we follow him in the path of giving ourselves away for the sake of others, we will truly find life.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/21/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.