Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Where is Justice?

Where Is Justice?
Job 42:1-6[1]
It may be hard for us to admit this, but there are a lot of people out there who simply cannot put their faith in God for a lot of different reasons.  For some, if they had parents who weren’t there for them, it’s hard to trust that God will be there for them.  For others it’s a matter of disappointed idealism.  They embraced the faith heart and soul, but somewhere along the way, the hypocrisy of people in the church undermined their faith.  For others it’s a matter of not being able to reconcile with the fact that the Bible and our faith aren’t always completely consistent. For many, however, the main problem has to do with questioning God’s justice.  When they go out into the world and try to do something to help the people who are suffering, what they see is rampant injustice.  And it breaks their heart to the point that they simply cannot believe in the loving God the Bible and our faith tell us about!
I think Job knew something of that struggle.  He had lived his whole life based on a faith in God that was defined by a simple principle: those who obey God are blessed, and those who disobey God are punished.  Therefore, in the logic of this rather simplistic faith, those who are blessed with prosperity and success must enjoy God’s favor, while those who endure hardship and suffering must have somehow offended God.  That seemed to work for Job for a long time: he had amassed a great fortune and had a large family of grown children.  Then it seemed as if the very ground under his feet gave way.  In one fell swoop he lost everything—everything he owned and everyone he cared for.  In Job’s world, there could have be no more clearer indication of God’s disfavor.
That is precisely what his three “friends” tell him—over and over again.  He must have done something to deserve his suffering.  Job insists that he has maintained his integrity, despite what had happened to him.  And they reply over and over that he wouldn’t be suffering if he hadn’t done something to deserve it.  The bulk of the book of Job consists of them going around and around with this argument—Job maintaining his innocence, and his friends maintaining the simplistic view of faith in terms of  reward and punishment they had all been taught from childhood.[2]
Finally, Job exhausts himself with his struggle, and gives up.  That’s when God appears and asks Job a whole series of questions that seem to “put him in his place.”  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job (38:4).  Again and again, God’s only response to Job’s complaint about his suffering is to ask things like, “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” (38:18); “Do you give the horse its might?” (39:19); and “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?” (39:26).  Of course, as Job realizes, the answer to all of these questions is “No.”  
That brings us to our lesson for today.  Job realizes that he has ventured into matters that are over his head.  In effect, Job asks, “Why am I suffering so, when I have always done right?”  And the answer he receives is “You don’t even understand the question.  How will you even begin to understand the answer?”  The answer to Job’s question is that there is no answer—at least not one he can comprehend.[3]  Job himself admits as much: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3). And I think that is the answer to our question as well.  When we see the injustice of suffering in our world, and we ask how a loving God can allow this to happen, there is no answer that can sufficiently explain it. 
And yet, there is more to the matter than simply saying we can’t understand and so we have to just surrender to the faith that God knows best.  Because one thing the Bible insists is true of God is that God is faithful.  God never forsakes us, no matter what.  And I believe this was true for Job as much as for anyone else.[4]  God never abandoned Job, even in his misfortune, especially in his affliction.[5]  It is the lesson of Jesus on the cross.[6]  Although some have said that God abandoned Jesus on the cross, I don’t believe that for a second.  God was right there, suffering in the person of Jesus.[7]  And I think part of the reason for the cross is to show us that God is always right there, suffering with anyone who is afflicted in any way or at any time.[8]
The reality of injustice in our world is so troubling that I don’t fault anyone who cannot believe in God because of it.[9]  I have experience a share of injustice in my life.  And at times I’ve been angry and come close to giving up my faith.  But the resolution to that crisis is found neither in giving up on God nor in the simplistic presumption that God won’t let bad things happen to good people.[10]  It is found in continuing to believe in the God who is always there, the God who never abandoned Jesus, the God who never abandoned Job, and the God who will never abandon us, no matter what may come our way.[11]  The answer is found in continuing to believe that God will never abandon you or me or anyone in this world, especially in the midst of suffering.  God’s justice is the justice of compassion, and in my mind that means that no matter what we may have to endure in this world, God is always right there with us, suffering right beside us, supporting us, and working in and through our lives to bring good out of every injustice.  God’s justice is found in God’s faithful presence—God will never forsake us, no matter what!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/28/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] In the end, as Stephen Shoemaker, in GodStories, 165, points out, God commends Job for his questioning!  From God’s perspective, it’s as if Job’s doubts were truer than his friends’ beliefs!
[3] Anchor Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Job, Book of, ” by James L. Crenshaw, III:861.
[4] Cf. Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job, xxvii, where he says that in the end Job is able to surrender to that which is beyond his ability to comprehend because, “He has faced evil, has looked straight into its face and through it, into a vast wonder and love.”
[5] In fact, over and over again, in the midst of his doubts, Job continues to express the hope that God will vindicate him.  Cf. J. Gerald Janzin, Job, 264. 
[6] cf. René Girard, “Job and the God of Victims,” in L. G. Perdue and W. C. Gilpin, ed., The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, 226: “The Jesus of the Gospels becomes, for the Christian tradition, the decisive event revealing the reality and meaning of the God of victims, of the God, the Logos, by which the world is created and constituted and who takes the side of the poor, the needy, the oppressed. What Job calls for, the Gospels focus on.”
[7]Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 243, where he says that God “suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love”; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78; cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[8] Cf. Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God, 192.
[9] See Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 61-62: “Anyone who claims to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God without taking into account this devastat­ing evidence [i.e. the Holocaust] either that God is indifferent or powerless, or that there is no God at all, is playing games. … If Love itself is really at the heart of it all, how can such things happen? What do such things mean?”
[10] Cf. Carol A. Newsom, “The Book of Job,” New Interpreters Bible IV:630.
[11] Cf. Newsom, “The Book of Job,” NIB IV:632.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Downward Mobility

Downward Mobility
Mk. 10:35-45[1]
Most of us were raised on some form of the American Dream: if you work hard enough, your children will be able to have it better than you did.  These days, it seems that we are beginning to see the limits of that dream for middle-class people like you and me.  For the first time in a long time we are beginning to reckon with the reality that our children may have it worse than we did.  They may have more difficulty finding good-paying jobs.  They may not be able to afford to buy a home.  They simply may not be able to make the kind of income it takes to sustain the lifestyle we had.  For the first time in about four or five generations, we are facing the reality of downward mobility.
I think the general reaction to this is one of disbelief.  We simply cannot accept that something has gone so wrong with our society that what was once our greatest strength—the ability of anybody to work hard and pull themselves up—is no longer valid for most of us.  We are going the way of societies where the “have’s” continue to have more and the “have-not’s” continue to lose ground.  It is becoming more and more difficult for those of us in the middle class to sustain our way of life.[2]  If you doubt that, just ask anyone who’s trying to send their kids to college!
I think this is another matter of justice—it goes along with the other issues we’ve been dealing with.  When any society moves in the direction of concentrating more and more of the wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, you can expect that injustice will prevail.  Economists who study world-wide trends even have a way to measure the relative distribution of wealth—it’s called the Gini Coefficient.[3]  While it’s not fool-proof, it makes sense that when most of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, you can expect to see a disparity in opportunity and quality of life.  In a word, injustice.   We’re used to talking about these matters in relation to so-called “Third World” countries.  It would seem that the chickens have come home to roost! Now we’re facing this problem right here.
As with the other issues of justice we’ve discussed, I don’t think it’s too bold to say that in this matter as well we are reaping what we’ve been sowing.  The growing disparity between rich and poor in our society is a direct result of what we are doing.  And what we are doing is ignoring what the Scriptures consistently teach us is the way to life.  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says that the Gentile rulers were used to “lording it over” others.[4]  That sounds like it doesn’t just apply to ancient times; in fact it sounds fairly contemporary to me.  In Jesus’ context, it was the aristocratic land barons who made the rules, and of course they made the rules to benefit themselves.  These days it seems to be the corporate barons and their political cronies who are guilty of that kind of blatant self-interest.
But Jesus said that approach won’t work.  He said that the way it should be is for the “greatest” to be servants of all, and for the “first” to be the slaves of all.  While he was talking about the Christian community, I don’t think he was just talking about church here.  I think he was also talking about what it means to thrive in human society.  When the “great” among us only seek to benefit and further enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us, it leads to the disintegration of society.   Something like what we see going on around us.  It fuels a growing dissatisfaction with what the rest of us have.  When we all live begin to like that, feeling discontented with what we have and thinking the only way for us to be happy is to get a bigger slice of the pie, it becomes a recipe for hostility and frustration and anger toward those around us.  In a word, the disintegration of our society.
But Jesus said that the way to life is found elsewhere.  It’s found by giving ourselves away as he did: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  When the “great” sacrifice themselves for the sake of all, then we see society as a whole begin to thrive.  Then we see real justice, peace, and harmony in our world. You may say I’m a dreamer, but as John Lennon put it, I’m not the only one.[5]  Most of my favorite theologians and spiritual writers have the same dream.  It is a dream of a world in which we all follow Jesus’ example of self-giving instead of constantly wanting more and more. 
We used to believe in that.  In fact, we had a saying for it: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”[6]  We knew that meant that the more you had, the more advantages you could count, the more you were expected to serve.  The more opportunities you were handed, the more you were expected to give yourself away for the benefit of others.  Throughout our history there have been those “great” ones who gave up their privilege and position for the sake of others.  That seems have gone by the wayside these days.  But maybe it’s time we try to recover the kind of “downward mobility” Jesus was talking about.  He calls us all to take up our crosses and follow him![7]  He calls us to a way of life that seeks not to take but to give, that seeks not to be served but to serve.  It’s a way of life that leads to life.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/21/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in his book, What’s The Matter With Kansas?, discusses why more of the middle class is not indignant with rich politicians who continue to favor the very rich with their policies.
[3] See “Gini Coefficient,” Wikipedia, accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient.  For an analysis of this, see “Unbottled Gini: Does it Matter, and If So, Why?” The Economist 20 Jan 2011; accessed at http://www.economist.com/node/17957381
[4] Cf. David Seeley, “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45,” Novum Testamentum 35:3 (1993):234-250, argues that there was in fact a tradition of rulers serving the people in the Greco-Roman world.
[5] Cf. John Lennon, “Imagine,” Apple Records, 11 Oct 1971.
[6] It originates with Jesus, cf. Lk. 12:48.  John F. Kennedy was famous for quoting (and misquoting) this verse.  See Mark Liberman, “The Tangled History of a Mangled Maxim,” http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004100.html.  Kennedy did come close a speech in 1961: “of those to whom much is given, much is required.”  See John F. Kennedy, “Address of President-Elect John F. Kennedy Delivered to a Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Jan 9, 1961; accessed at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Ready-Reference/JFK-Speeches/Address-of-President-Elect-John-F-Kennedy-Delivered-to-a-Joint-Convention-of-the-General-Court-of-th.aspx .
[7] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 101, calls it, “the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus. It is the way toward the poor, the suffering, the marginal, the prisoners, the refugees, the lonely, the hungry, the dying, the tortured, the homeless.”  Cf. also Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 195.  Cf. also Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:654: “The self-denial associated with the cross does not always mean martyrdom, even in Mark.  Another form of self-denial has been emphasized throughout these chapters: denying the human demand for honor, power, and status.”

Monday, October 15, 2012


Mk. 10:17-31;  Amos 5:11-15[1]
In 1990, I had the opportunity to participate in a mission trip to Western Romania.  I was living near Stuttgart, Germany and studying at a local university on a Fulbright Grant.  Just a few months before, the Berlin wall had come down, and with it, most of the “iron curtain” that kept Eastern Europe under Soviet domination and isolated from the rest of the world.   Just a few weeks before our trip, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been overthrown by a grass-roots revolution.  In the aftermath, as it became apparent how desperate the Romanian people were, humanitarian aid poured in from all over Western Europe.  So the church I attended decided to send several of us with a trailer full of food to distribute to families in the churches of Western Romania.
I learned a lot of lessons on that trip.  One of them was how easy it is for a Westerner to spend the equivalent of a month’s professional wage in Eastern European terms on a souvenir for his wife!  I think I should have thought that one through a little more carefully!  But more importantly, I learned that the church in Eastern Europe, contrary to all expectations, was actually thriving under their various authoritarian governments.  The deprivations they had to endure seemed to make their faith deeper, stronger, and more central to their daily lives.  By contrast, the churches in Western Europe languished.  Though there were some free churches that were holding their own, huge cathedrals all over Europe sat mostly empty week after week.  One mission leader suggested that the deprivations of life in Eastern Europe seemed to make their faith thrive, while the prosperity of the West seemed to choke the very life out of faith.[2]
The Scriptures and the Christian tradition have been consistent from the start: there is something about wealth that has a way of taking over your heart and life. [3]  It is unavoidable.  Jesus said it this way: “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24).  He wasn’t the first to say it.  Prophets like Amos repeatedly warned against the dangers of wealth.  In the Gospels Jesus echoed that warning again and again. For example, In the parable of the Sower he said that the seed in the thorny ground didn’t bear fruit because “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mk 4:19).  The challenge is clear—one can either embrace wealth or one can embrace faith.[4]
The man in our Gospel lesson for today faced that challenge.  I think we should take seriously his claim that he had kept the commandments since his youth.  Jesus doesn’t dispute it, and he doesn’t even dispute that a life of obedience to God’s is the way to eternal life.  Nevertheless, I think there was a serious disconnect between Jesus’ definition of “obedience” and this man’s definition.  His view may have been more in line with the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy, which encouraged the idea that those who are godly are blessed with wealth, and those who are not blessed with wealth must not be godly. [5]  Jesus challenged this simplistic equation by calling the man to sell all his possessions, which in his mind represented God’s blessings for his obedience, and give the money to the poor, who deserved their poverty due to a lack of obedience. But it was more than he could accept.  He simply could not do it.  Jesus called him to a higher level of obedience, and instead of rising to the challenge, he walked away grieving.[6]
It’s incredibly easy to justify our love of wealth.  What once was a luxury only the few could afford has now become a “necessity” that everybody has to have. Think about it—what is the “normal” size TV now?  I would say it’s 42 inches, but when I bought my 42 inch TV a few years back, it was a “luxury.”  Now the “luxury” models are 52 to 70 inches! We live in a society where the accumulation of wealth is not only encouraged, it is positively necessary if one wants to avoid being destitute in retirement!  So how can we possibly hear Jesus’ challenge to choose either faith or wealth?[7]   I’m not sure many of us ever do. We get incredibly attached to our stuff.  We’re proud of our possessions.  It’s next to impossible to let our favorite things go.  And in all of this, we can be positively blind to what our wealth does to us—and what it does to the way we treat those we view as “beneath” us.[8]
So how do we avoid making the mistake the man in our Gospel lesson made?  First and foremost, we must recognize that “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God” means caring about poverty and the suffering it spawns in our world.  Throughout the Scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, the heart and soul of what God wants from us is to practice mercy, compassion, and generosity to others.[9]  I think we must also recognize that the prophet’s call to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15) means working to eradicate poverty in our world.  Not as a token pretense, but really and truly working to eradicate poverty.  And I think we must recognize our own attachment to the wealth we cherish.  They say that admitting the problem is the first step to recovery!  When we can admit our attachment to our wealth, then we can remember that the saints and heroes of our faith have consistently taught us that the only way to free ourselves from our wealth is to give as much of it away as we possibly can!

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] A similar phenomenon has been observed in the comparison between Latin
America and North America.  In fact, some speak of a “reverse mission” on the part of the poor in Latin America to convert their wealthy brothers and sister s in the North!  Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 58-59; and Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7 et passim.
[3] R. Schnackenburg, Jesus in the Gospels, 194-95.   See also Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 40-43; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 196.  See further, John Sheila Galligan, “The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke,” Spirituality Today  37 (Spring 1985): 4-12.  She warns against “the seductive lure of the power, pleasure, and security that are the by-products of being wealthy.” Cf. also Joel Green, Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 148: “Wealth becomes a master if it is not mastered.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.548: “Jesus’ call to discipleship challenges and indeed cuts right across the self-evident attachment to that which we possess.”
[5] Cf. A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 483.
[6] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 100, 103.
[7] Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 188: “After we have done our best to make this text say something less upsetting to our system of values, Jesus looks intently at us and continues quietly to affirm that life is to be had not by accumulating things, but by disencumbering ourselves.”
[8]J. Moltmann, “Political Theology” Theology Today, 21.: “Only the poor really know the oppression of wealth’s exclusiveness. Only the hated know the misery which hate causes. The rich, the oppressor, the hater are always a bit oblivious to the misery they cause, even if they are well-intentioned.”  See also J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 330; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 175; Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 194; Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 177-78; Küng, On Being a Christian, 597.
[9] See Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8; Jas. 1:26–27.  Time and again Israel was commanded to care for the poor and destitute (cf. Exod. 22:22; 23:11; Lev. 25:25; Deut. 14:29; 15:7; 24:12, 17; 26:12) because this emulates God’s care for the poor (cf. Deut. 10:18–19; cf. 1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 10:14; 12:5; 35:10; 140:12; Eccl. 5:8; Isa. 11:4; 25:4; Jer. 20:13; Lk. 16:22). 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Hard Hearts

Hard Hearts
Mk. 10:2-12[1]
At times, it seems that the whole structure of the family is coming unraveled. The casual attitude with which we approach marriage and divorce is one more example of the way in which we as a people are practicing injustice and thinking we can get away without suffering any consequences.  We get married to get divorced, to get remarried to get divorced again, to get remarried again and so on. The attitude seems to be that “if this doesn’t work out, I can always get out of it.” [2]  I wonder if we don’t place more value on the process of buying a house than we do on taking vows of marriage and love.  That’s probably an overstatement, but I don’t think it’s too far off.  Neither do those who study these trends.  Their studies make it clear that our casual attitude toward marriage and divorce has harmed our families, our children, and the whole fabric of our society. [3]
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus takes on the casual attitude of the Jewish leaders about divorcing a wife.  In that setting, a woman could not divorce her husband.  Only the man had the legal right to divorce his wife.  They knew that fact very well when they asked the question “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  Notice they asked “is it lawful?”, not “is it godly?” or “is it right?” or “is it harmful?”  They seemed to approach it as a matter on a par with dividing up the family inheritance.   Jesus knew what they were up to, so he had them repeat it for him: “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” [4]  In this case, the Law wasn’t prescribing divorce, it was trying to protect the woman by making the husband give her some way to be able to remarry.  If not, she would have been reduced to a life of begging or worse to support herself.
But Jesus went to the heart of the matter, literally.  He knew that their casual attitude toward sending a wife away was one that came from their hard hearts.  In other words, it was a selfish act that created suffering for the wife, and they couldn’t care less. He confronted them with the fact that “from the beginning” it was not the case.  They appealed to legalistic hair-splitting, and he trumped them by going back to the Creator’s original intention for marriage. [5]  Jesus says that God’s intention for marriage was to create one family out of two separate people.  It was intended to unite two people in such a way as to make it as if they were one person. 
But he goes even further than that.  They wanted to talk about the “Law,” so he trumped them again.  They cited an off-handed stipulation of Moses regarding divorce and remarriage (Deut. 24:1-4), and he appealed to the Ten Commandments!  He said that for a man to casually divorce his wife was the equivalent of committing adultery against her!  Once again, it was the casual, hard-hearted, selfish attitude that Jesus was addressing.  When a man sent his wife away due to selfish reasons, he not only did her irreparable harm, he also violated the Creator’s intention for marriage, and thus was guilty of committing adultery.
Divorce is an unfortunate and painful reality in our world.  Living in marriage with another human being is anything but easy. These days, both men and women have the “right” to send their spouses away with a “certificate of dismissal.”  It would be a mistake to think that everyone who divorces does so casually or selfishly, though I think there are a lot of people who do.  I’ve been married twice, and I’m at the end of a second divorce.  Although I’m the first person to admit that I’m not easy to live with, If I had my choice I probably would never have been divorced.  But I know for a fact that both of the women who divorced me did so after a long and painful process of deliberation.  They didn’t do it casually, or with a hard-hearted lack of concern for my welfare.  It was something they felt they had to do in order to be able to live their lives in peace and happiness.  That happens sometimes.  After two people have spent a portion of their lives together, it seems better for them to go their separate ways.  But it means breaking up a family, and it’s painful and tragic.[6] 
I don’t think Jesus was addressing that situation at all.  And I certainly don’t think he was branding everyone who remarries after divorce as guilty of perpetual adultery! [7]  In fact, I believe Jesus would be sympathetic toward both parties in a divorce that comes at the end of this kind of soul-searching. [8]  What Jesus was confronting was the casual, selfish, and hard-hearted way in which many assume the right to send away a spouse with little more than a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out”!  That kind of approach to divorce essentially abandons all concern for the welfare of the other person and violates anything resembling love, or justice, or compassion.  It tears apart the fabric of a family.  Like the other issues of justice we’ve been looking at, any behavior like this that comes from a hard heart undermines the well-being of everyone involved, and it ultimately undermines life for us all.
Jesus makes it very clear—a casual approach to marriage and divorce is not consistent with the way of life that he calls us to follow.  He calls us to a life of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”  That means we have to think about how our actions affect others—especially when it comes to our families.  He calls us to the decision to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” That means abandoning the selfish and hard-hearted way of life that so many have adopted.  That applies to our marriages as well as to any other relationship.  He calls us to be transformed by the love of God, and so live our lives with hearts filled with love for God and love for others.  That means living with those who are closest to us, who can sometimes frustrate and madden us, with understanding and love.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/7/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. David Garland, “Biblical View of Marriage,” Review and Expositor 427, where he comments that “‘to have and to hold as long as we both shall live’ has been changed to ‘as long as my spouse meets my needs and I am fulfilled.’”
[3] Cf. Diana Garland, “Divorce and the Church,” Review and Expositor 422, where she says, “Marriage has been redefined by our culture in the past twenty years. It has become an agreement to live in friendship and support and sexual intimacy with the partner; it is no longer defined as the creation of a new family unit.”
[4] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 646, where she says that they were trying to get him in trouble with the Herodian rulers, like John the Baptist, over the casual way in which they approached marriage and divorce.
[5] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 645; cf. also Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 180; and A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 467-68.
[6] Cf. Williamson, Mark, 178: “A divorce may revoke a legal contract, but one cannot un-live the vital ties created by life together in marriage.”
[7] Cf. John Shelby Spong, The Living Commandments, 80, where he recognizes that that the biblical ideal is monogamous marriage, but wants to propose that “there is a very large area between what we could call ideal and what we would call immoral.”
[8] Cf. Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:646: “Christians have not been as adept as was their founder at avoiding the divorce business. Some have created an elaborate legal system for determining when a marriage may be declared void. Others are experimenting with ritualizing divorce. One cannot come away from this Markan story without the sense that Jesus would have declared both approaches attempts to put human traditions in place of God’s intention for humanity. A failed marriage represents a human tragedy for everyone involved.”  Cf. also Diana Garland, “Divorce and the Church,” 428.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012


Mk. 9:38-50[1]
One of my favorite Christmas stories is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  In it, Dickens tells the story of how Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from a selfish, tight-fisted miser who could care less about the welfare of anybody else into a big-hearted, generous, and kind man.  Part of what effects this dramatic transformation is the fact that he’s visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley, his former partner who had been dead seven years.  Interestingly, the ghost of Jacob wore a long and heavy chain that he literally had to drag along with him.  When Scrooge asks Marley about it, he says that he wore the chain he forged in life—a chain forged by all the merciless, unjust, ruthless, and oppressive deeds he had done in life.  And he warned Scrooge that his own chain was as long and as heavy as his, and it had grown even longer and heavier over the seven years since Marley’s death!
It’s an interesting concept, that in death we wear chains forged from what we have done in life.  Though Marley claims that his chains were invisible until the day he died, I think it’s impossible for anyone to forge such a heavy chain of heartless unconcern for others without feeling something of its weight in this life. In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus uses a different metaphor for the cost of a life lived at the expense of others—he says you might as well wear a millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea!  In case you are unfamiliar with the way grain used to be processed, a mill would grind the grain between two stones, the top one of which was called the millstone.  It was round and it was turned by livestock pulling in circles.  A modern day equivalent might be one of those cast-off tires full of cement that we use to hold up a volleyball net. 
Why would Jesus speak so harshly about “causing one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble”?  I think it was because he was serious about injustice.[2]  While the religious people of every day have identified sexual outcasts as the chief of sinners, Jesus pointed instead to the people used their power to diminish the lives of the least and the lowest in society, instead of helping them to thrive.[3]  In the eyes of the biblical prophets, this was the true sin that plagued Gods’ people, and I think it still plagues many who claim to follow Christ today.
I think there are a lot of people in our world who are walking around with virtual millstones.  They get rich because they are beautiful or talented or powerful or shrewd, and they help create a culture in which people think that the only way to have a decent life in this world is to be beautiful or talented or powerful or shrewd.  And if you can’t get rich that way, then you have to get rich any way you can—“get rich or die tryin’” as the rapster “50 cent” puts it.
And in the wake of this outlook on life is an unbelievable trail of the wreckage of human lives.  We have all kinds of monuments today that are named for the “robber barons” of the past.  People who enriched themselves literally on the backs of thousands who labored in poverty.  People whose hands are stained with the blood of those who died in substandard housing, with indecent living conditions, and barely enough food for their families. And today, their names are proudly displayed on our monuments—hospitals, universities, concert halls.  But if anybody is walking this world as a ghost dragging long and heavy chains, it is those who profit from the labor and the misfortune of the masses.
It’s easy to look back and identify the “robber barons” of the past.  But I wonder who they are in our day and time.  I think of the entertainment moguls and the sports moguls and the financial moguls as likely candidates.  They continue to keep people enthralled in the illusion of a “good life” for those who are beautiful or talented or shrewd enough.  But in our Gospel lesson, Jesus confronted the “moguls” of his day head on.  He told them it was better for them to cut off their own hands and gouge out their own eyes than to keep oppressing people the way they were doing.  Now, Jesus knew that “sin” isn’t located in any particular body part; he was exaggerating to make a point.[4]  But I’m afraid his warning fell on deaf ears, just as it does in large part today. 
So what can we as average, everyday people do about the injustice and the inequality that pervades our world?  Well, I really do believe in a version of “think globally, and act locally.”  I really do believe that we are making a difference in this world just by keeping on with the life of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”  As we do so we can help dispel the illusion that you have to be beautiful or powerful to have the “good life.”  And Just as Jesus did, I think we too can confront those who demean and diminish others to enrich themselves—whether they’re in Hollywood or on Wall Street or in Washington. 
But I think we also have to remember that we all have diminished another at some time in our lives.[5]  We all have our own millstones around our necks.  Fortunately, the same Christ who confronts all who enhance their own welfare at the expense of another also offers to set us free from our millstones.[6]  All of us who carry millstones, whether we’re “average” or a “mover and shaker,” suffer from what we do when we diminish others.  It’s no fun walking around with a millstone around your neck!   And just as Jesus offers freedom to the oppressed, he offers us all the chance to be set free from our oppressive deeds.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, all we have to do is change our hearts and change our ways, and our millstones come falling off.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/30/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:158.  He says, “It is because of His own clear-cut decision [to be about God’s business] that in the encounter with Him others must choose between Himself and all the things that perhaps seem necessary and important to them, e.g., wealth or satisfaction or pleasure or reputation.”  It seems to me that justice is the heart of the “business” that Jesus said he must be engaged in.
[3] Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 74: “Arrogance, self-absorption, insensitivity, and tyranny are all negative attitudes that frequently lie behind the desire to be first and to be the greatest (9:34). Just as frequently these attitudes cause people to stumble, especially the younger, weaker, and less influential. Far from seeking positions of power, Jesus’ disciples should seek opportunities for service. Rather than causing the little ones to stumble, the disciples must help them stand and grow in faith. The matter is so important to Jesus that he describes the dire consquences in shocking hyperbole: better to drown oneself in the sea than to offend a little one.”
[4] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “The Costliness of Grace,” The Christian Century (Feb 6, 1986):111: “To be sure, the hand-chopping, eye-plucking remedy for sin could never work, if for no other reason than the fact that we have more sins than we have bodily parts.”  Cf. also A. Y. Collins and H. W. Attridge, Mark, 452; Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:641.
[5] Cf. Joel C. Marcus, “The Millstone,” The Christian Century (Sept 13, 2000):902.
[6] Cf. Marcus, “Millstone,” 902: “The calculus of revenge seems too complicated! There must be some other equation, or no hope will remain for any of us. And, indeed, the New Testament seems to hint at another equation when Paul says that God has imprisoned all human beings in disobedience in order that he might have mercy upon all (Rom. 11:32).”