Jesus’ Question: Who Do You Say That I Am?

‘Who Do You Say That I Am?” was the title of the August 20 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue.[1]

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Rev. Brennan Blue

 

 

 

 

 

Here are extracts of that sermon along with the main Scripture reading of the day and two of the prayers.

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession: “Merciful God, you call us home with compassion and grace, but we fail to listen. You love and name us as your own, but we fail to respond in kind. We turn our backs on our neighbors’ needs, consumed with our own concerns. We look the other way while violence, prejudice, and greed run rampant in our communities. God of grace, help us to admit our sins and shortcomings, so that as you come to us in mercy, we may repent and find a new way of being. At home in your compassion and care, may we find that we ourselves are new beings.”

Listening for the Word

Reading of the Holy Scripture: Mark 8: 27-33 (NRSV):[2]

  • “Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist;’ and others, ‘Elijah;’ and still others, ‘one of the prophets.’  [Jesus then] asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And [Jesus] . . . sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”
  • Then [Jesus] . . . began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Sermon (Excerpts):

“Biblical scholars cite this passage [from Mark] as a literary and theological hinge; the single most important passage in the whole of the gospel, for it reveals the truth of Jesus’ identity that only he has known all along: Jesus is the Messiah, and nothing will ever be the same.[3][

“Countless sermons, books, dissertations, and devotions have been written about just what this means that Jesus is the Messiah. Today, I ask us to step back and wonder at what may be one of Jesus’ greatest strengths. He knows who he is. He understands and even embraces his identity, both human and divine.”

“Jesus knows his gifts and graces, his desire to teach and pray and heal. He shares these freely from places of deep love and mercy. But he also knows the hard things that come with his identity. He knows that he will suffer, and must suffer freely in service of others. He probably knows that his will be a lonely road.”

“One that, ultimately, he will have to walk alone. This too Jesus embraces from a place of deep love and mercy.”

“I doubt that Jesus could so faithfully walk the road before him without knowing fully and faithfully who he is. But by the grace of God, Jesus does and Jesus will.”

“And if we are to follow Jesus, then it’s important that we not only know this Messiah, but that we follow in his steps and know ourselves, as well.”

“That’s what it’s going to take. Honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces. It means speaking out while also searching in; leading from our identity, even if we’re working to change that identity. This is as true of our advocacy, as it is of our worship, our service, our care.”

“In short, it takes being and bringing all of ourselves to the table, trusting that God can handle us – all of us – as we are. That’s why we gather each week to confess our sins, hear God’s Word, and pray for the hurts of our lives and world.”

“So may we live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may be not only written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

[May we be able to answer Jesus’ question: “‘But who do you say that I am?” An answer that is truthful for each of us. An answer that is persuasive for others.]

“May we may know and love ourselves for who we are.”

“May we may know and love our neighbors for who they are.”

“As we together seek to know and follow Christ.”

Responding to the Word

The Pastoral Prayer was provided by Rev. Dr. Margaret McCray, the Executive Director of the Westminster Counseling Center, with these words:

“How it must grieve you, our loving Parent, that as we grow into our adulthood from the wide open spaces of our childhood dreams and aspirations we can lose our way, neglecting and even denigrating the unique beauty within ourselves and within every person we meet: the different but equally useful and remarkable talents you endow us with; the different ways we express our sexuality;  our different colors of skin and varied cultural traditions and life experiences; the different and deeply spiritual ways we worship you.”

“Forgive us, Loving God, for making our lives tiny and restricted, contenting ourselves with small, selfish ideas and actions. Forgive us for cutting ourselves off from engaging with our sisters and brothers from all over this exquisite home you gave us to live in, a home we are rapidly destroying by our thoughtless abuse of its once abundant resources.  Heal us, mend us, embolden us, Gracious God.”

“We pray for those who live in fear and anger, for those who know the horror and grief of terrorist attacks, for those who live in poverty and hunger, for those in the midst of war, displacement and hatred, for those affected by drought, mudslides and the effects of climate change.   The world cries out for us to be vessels of the love you created in us at our birth, the love you poured out in Jesus the Christ, who showed us how to live that love.”

“Give us energy and commitment to act on behalf others. Embolden us to live lives of generosity and compassion, to show kindness and act justly towards all people.  Give us courage to speak out against injustice, to honor the rich, fertile multitude of the different bodies, talents, skills, traditions and imaginations you have given us.  Heal our wounded hearts, help us to nurture the unique possibilities of our own bodies and minds. May we go to sleep each night and wake each morning knowing that whatever the day may bring we will meet it with gratitude and love in our body, mind and soul, for it is from this deep well that we draw the love and justice we show others.  This is what saves us.  This is what gives us hope.  This is what inspires us.  This is how you created us to be.  Amen.”

Conclusion

Jesus’ first question to his disciples–Who do people say that I am? — might be seen as His seeking information about whether His message was getting through to the people. When the disciples provided multiple, conflicting answers, Jesus clearly was dissatisfied and thus asked his  follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Presumably the disciples were much more familiar with what Jesus had said and done and would have better answers. Indeed, only one answer was necessary when Peter said, “You are the Messiah.”

That follow-up question also was addressed to everyone in Jesus’ time and to everyone since then. There obviously have been and continue to be many different answers to this question. Some will say, “I do not know.” Others, “He was a man who lived many years ago who claimed to be the Son of God.” And so on.

For those of us who claim to be Christians, the question is a challenge to have an answer that is direct and authentic. For me, Jesus was a favored Son of God, who by his words and actions courageously demonstrated the kind of life that God wants every human being to live. As Jesus affirmed, “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, therefore, commands our love and worship, as we strive to follow Him and live the life that He demonstrated.

Striving to follow Him involves reflection, prayer and conversation with others as we struggle to discern our gifts and talents and how to use them to advance God’s kingdom on earth and thereby discover and advance our own vocation. [4] As Rev. Blue said in his sermon, following Jesus requires “honest soul-searching and self-work. The courage to name our fears, failings and prejudices, even as we name our gifts and graces.” In so doing, we “live and work for the day when the promises of divine grace, love and welcome may not only be written upon our hearts, but spoken from our lips, witnessed in our lives and policies, and demonstrated by the strength and our care and conviction.”

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[1] The bulletin of the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] The other scriptures were Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Galatians 3:23-29.

[3]  Jeffery S. Siker, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 237, 239.

[4] Other posts have reflected on the concept of vocation and my own sense of vocation: My General Thoughts on Vocation (Feb. 6, 2014);  (Feb. 15, 2014); Another Powerful Worship Service About Vocation (Feb. 15, 2014); Other Scriptural Passages About Vocation (Feb. 17, 2014); What Happens When Jesus Calls? (Feb. 19, 2014); My Vocations (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Perspective on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Another perspective on the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan was offered by Associate Pastor Brennan Blue in his July 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Rev. Brennan Blue
Westminster Presbyterian Church

 

 

 

The Holy Scripture

The Parable itself is expressed in Luke 10: 25-37 (NRSV) as follows:

  • “Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ [Jesus] said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ [The lawyer] answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And [Jesus] said to [the lawyer], ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’”
  • “But wanting to justify himself, [the lawyer] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’” [The lawyer] said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

The Sermon

 In “the parable of the Good Samaritan, why it is that even the most well-trained priest or Levite may walk on by a neighbor in need?”

“On the one hand, this parable reminds us that we are called to put our faith and love into action, plain and simple. Yet this parable occurs in a vacuum. There is one person of need, one act of love to counter the one great injustice at hand.” (Emphasis added.)

 “But what happens when there’s another neighbor in need along the way? Do you set aside the first to help the second? What if each step brings another worry or need, bigger and more complex than the one before it?”

“Perhaps you know the feeling. Confronted with a complex constellation of needs and problems surrounding our lives and communities, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Another election argument, another policy change, another broken relationship. Another act of hate and discrimination, another single parent facing another night on the street with her family, another police shooting in our city. Another setback, another neighbor in need.”

“How can you or I keep up with it all, let alone make a difference? Maybe it’s best to just take a break from the headlines, find a new game on our smartphone and just sort of take our mind off of things.”

Apathy subdues our action. Despair clouds our hope. Distraction does exactly what it describes – it dis-tractions us and robs us of a way forward. These invasive influences make it easier to check out than dig in.” (Emphasis added.)

“I’ve always sort of assumed that the young lawyer in this parable is asking the question ‘who is my neighbor’ from a relatively blank slate. But it’s clear that this young lawyer knows his stuff. Remember, Jesus asks him what is written in the Scriptures regarding eternal life, and that beautifully succinct response of ‘you shall all love God, and love your neighbor as yourself’ comes from him.”

“So what if his follow-up question – who is my neighbor? – is coming less from a place of innocence or ignorance and more from a place of knowing exhaustion? What if this young lawyer has eyes to see the many people around him who represent his neighbor and with a dizzying head is simply trying to figure out where to even begin?” [2]

“I found help and hope for this very question on the second workday of our high school ]mission] trip while building new trails at Young Gulch, a beloved national forest area now closed to the public due to past fire and flooding damage. With hardhats, picks, shovels, ropes and rock bars, we hiked a mile and half up and into our new worksite carrying the hope of a new day. It was there, while shoveling, sawing, lifting and hauling, that we were introduced to the art of trail building and the important work of finding the critical edge.” (Emphasis added.)

“In terms of trail building, the critical edge forms the crucial guiding line from which you begin and orient your work. It is the marker between path and planet, trail and wilderness. Your footing and direction are both determined from there, and though countless shrubs and boulders may lie ahead and around, the critical edge marks where you will carve out your 30” wide path, and that is what makes the work doable. So for our team of 30 students and 6 adults, this critical edge became our path by which to walk and work. And work we did! It was like being blessed with the gift of traction. Our critical edge to guide us, we literally dug in and blazed new trails that others, we hope, may follow and enjoy for years to come.” (Emphases added.)

“This process of finding traction for our work was brought home in a new workshop that we incorporated into our mission trips this year. A workshop called ‘Mission Possible.’

“Essentially, Mission Possible is an exercise that challenges multiple groups to take on a complex and often overwhelming social problem using a very limited set of ‘dealt resources.’ The creative challenge is to find which crucial slice of the problem your team wants to focus on and then leverage your limited resources to make the greatest possible impact.” (Emphases added.)

“Middle schoolers using glass jars to build empathy. High school students using wooden baskets to raise awareness via social media. Neither of these ideas will knock out the layered, complex problems of bullying and climate change, but they do provide a way forward, a critical edge to ward off apathy and dig into action. The goal here is to root out those invasive influences of distraction and despair, and then live out our calling by putting our faith into action. We don’t have to move every boulder, but we do need to discern and then do our part.” (Emphasis added.)

“That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at in this parable: connecting exposed belief to explicit action. Even if this young lawyer is asking ‘who is my neighbor’  from a place of overwhelming apathy and despair, there is hope is Jesus’ simple response. Know who you are and who your neighbors are, and even if can only reach out to one, do it. Put your faith into action, even if others are walking by. Be that very inspiration. Host a book read; plant a rain garden; start a justice choir; advocate for mental health programs. Find your critical edge and dig in.” (Emphases added.)

“Friends, this is the work we have been doing together as a community throughout the entire Open Doors, Open Futures process. . . . In fact, in seeking to find our own critical edge, Westminster has set aside serious time . . . to ask of God and one another this young lawyer’s question – “who is our neighbor?” In the midst of our work and worship, we’ve [been] wrestling and discerning questions about our gifts, resources, and partnerships, seeking to understand where God is calling us as a community. “

“By engaging these very questions, we are finding action in place of apathy, hope in the midst of despair, and the blessing of traction for our ministry even in our changing downtown context.”

“That’s what the love of God and neighbor demands of us: find your place of calling, your critical edge, and dig in. It’s as simple as that and as hard as that.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the continuum of apathy and action, where do you fall today? What are your gifts? Who is your neighbor? Have you found your critical edge? May God bless us with traction for lives and ministries.” (Emphasis added.)

The Prayer of Confession

Before the reading of the Holy Scripture and the sermon, the congregation joined in the following prayer of confession:

  • “Gracious God, our sins and sorrows are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name and what our hearts can no longer bear. Set us free from a past that we cannot change and open to us a future in which we can be changed. May the light of your love open our eyes to the grace that is already calling us home. By your grace, may we grow ever more in your way of justice, mercy, and peace.”

Conclusion

Another frequent, and appropriate, interpretation of this parable emphasizes that the Levite and the priest who passed by the injured man were of higher status in Israel at the time whereas the Samaritans were not well-regarded. Thus, one’s status in the community is not the mark of a good neighbor. Instead, what counts is what one does to help the injured man. In this instance, the Samaritan is clearly a good neighbor.

However, the overall message of Jesus, for me, is that anyone and everyone is my neighbor. Thus, the question arises as to whether and how any individual can help everyone. The answer to this question is clearly “No,” and the result of such reflection, as the sermon suggests, can be incapacitation of the individual and failure to be kind to a neighbor, failure to provide help to a neighbor.

That leads to the second foundation of my Christian faith. God knows that we fail and yet forgives us. The most powerful statement of God’s forgiveness comes in another story by Jesus, The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-31).

But Jesus is not calling each of us to try to do everything that needs doing in the world.

Important in my own struggles with this dilemma is the following homily often attributed to my personal saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero, but actually written in November 1979 by Kenneth Edward Untener, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, for a memorial mass for deceased priests:[3]

  • “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision.”
  • “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.”
  • “No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.”
  • “That is what we are all about. We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.”
  • “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
  • “We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a  future that is not our own.”

Rev. Blue’s questions at the end of his sermon are very helpful. Find your place of calling or critical edge. Then, dig in and do what you can to help your neighbor, knowing and accepting that it may not be perfect or complete.

Another Presbyterian pastor and author, Frederick Buechner, puts it this way. Each of us needs to find his or her vocation which “comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. . . . The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[4]

Vocation, for me, implies a dedication to a certain kind of work or service over a period of time. A one-time effort probably does not count. On the other hand, in my opinion, vocation does not necessarily require a lifetime commitment to doing a certain thing. Indeed, an individual’s circumstances change over time, and what was a vocation for one period may not be appropriate for another period. Thus, an individual may have several vocations over time, some of which might be simultaneous. This at least has been true for me.

Some people may decide that they shall start engaging in a particular vocation. They know from the start that a certain course of action shall be their vocation, perhaps inspired by what they believe to be the word of God. Others discover after the fact that what they have been doing for a period of time has been and is their vocation. I am a member of the latter group.

Deciding on what shall be or is a vocation should be, in my opinion, a matter of reflection, meditation and prayer and in some cases discussion with others to assist in discerning a true vocation.[5]

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2] Another interpretation of this Parable does not see the lawyer as honestly seeking guidance from Jesus. Instead the lawyer is seen as cleverly asking trick questions to elicit answers from Jesus that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus, however, more cleverly declines to answer the questions and instead induces the lawyer to answer his own questions, the second  after Jesus tells a story. (My Christian Faith, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2011).)

[3] Ken Untener, The Practical Prophet : Pastoral Writings at iii (Paulist Press; New York 2007) (Untener called this prayer “Reflection on Ministry”).

[4] See My General Thoughts on Vocation, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 6, 2014).

[5] See My Vocations, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2014).

 

God’s Restlessness at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church                                                   

“God’s Restlessness” was the title of the moving May 28 sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by Rev. Sarah Brouwer, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life. It was preceded by a meaningful Prayer of Confession by Rev. Brennan Blue, Associate Pastor for Families, Youth and Children, and by the reading of passages of Holy Scripture.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s Sanctuary and Revs. Brouwer and Blue:

The Prayer of Confession

Here is the Prayer of Confession (emphases added):

“All: God of grace, we gather in worship to come home to you. Like sheep without a shepherd, you bring us back to the fold; you search for us until we are found.

One: O God, do you ever tire of looking for us?

All: God of compassion, your rest comes when all your people are as one, when justice and peace reign among us.

One: O God, we confess we grow weary of a world in need; will you still call on us to serve?

All: God of mercy, you do not fatigue; you are not exhausted by the needs of the world. Remind us that you have called each one of us to work alongside you. We are not alone.

One: O God, will you help us to trust in you?

All: God of forgiveness, we pray that you would search for us, find us, call on us, and help us to trust in your unending love.

One: O God, who will show us the way?

All: God of new life, in Jesus Christ you show us grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love. We pray to be Christ’s people, gathered and sent into your world to serve.”

Readings from Holy Scripture

The readings were Psalm 89: 20-37 (NRSV) and  Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56 (NRSV), Here is the text of the latter:

  • “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
  • “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

Sermon

“I expect the disciples in our story today were learning about their own limits, as well as the challenges that came along with the joys of following Jesus. As we meet them here in Mark’s Gospel, we see they are coming back together after having been dispersed to go do ministry throughout Galilee. If we peak a bit further back through Mark, we can tell the disciples and Jesus really have been going non-stop, traveling by foot, relying on the hospitality of strangers, healing and teaching, teaching and healing. They’ve also faced what appears to be their first bout of rejection- in Jesus’ hometown, no less. And while rejection is common in almost any line of work, it doesn’t do much for morale.”

“They’re also just hungry. And, if they’re anything like me they’re probably ‘hangry’- it’s when you’re so hungry you get a little angry? So while they do approach Jesus eager to report on and debrief about all they had done, like any good pastor, Jesus recognizes they need a break.”

“Mark’s Gospel says Jesus tells the disciples to come away to a deserted place and rest awhile, and so they all get in the boat and begin to cross a small portion of the Sea of Galilee. I’m confident this journey signals a shift in the story- the literal crossing lets us know of a figurative change. But, the crossing over isn’t our only hint that something is about to happen- the second clue we are given is Jesus’ suggestion to go somewhere deserted. Deserted, desert, it indicates the disciples are entering a period of their ministry that might feel a bit like the wilderness- a time that can be difficult, but during which much can be learned. In Mark’s Gospel, in particular, Jesus reveals things to the disciples bit by bit, peeling back layers. It’s as if they are learning right alongside the folks who gather on the shore to hear Jesus teach. Those who appear to be the insiders- a/k/a the disciples- turn into the outsiders. The ones who should know the full story, really know only a piece of what Jesus is up to.”

“As they start to come ashore the disciples realize they’ve been found out- whoever saw them leaving in the boat recognized Jesus, and a large group hurried around the edge of the water to greet them when they landed.”

“I can only imagine the disciples’ chagrin, as they approached the so-called deserted place, and saw the crowd forming. Any one of us knows this feeling. You’re trying to get out of town for vacation and someone from work, or school, or church, catches you with a last minute request and you just can’t get away fast enough. I can almost hear the collective groan among the disciples as they saw the mob of needy people- so much for some down time and a hearty meal of freshly caught fish.”

“But, here comes the rub. We know Jesus got out of the boat at this point; we don’t know if the disciples did. The text says, ‘As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’”

“This may seem like a small point. Who cares if the disciples go with him or not? Preacher John Buchanan [2] says this, ‘Jesus looks at the crowd and has compassion. The agenda is set aside instantaneously. The disciples see an unwanted, unwelcome interruption. Jesus sees lost sheep needing a shepherd. Compassion trumps the disciples’ . . . exhaustion Jesus sees need and drops everything to attend to it. But, the disciples, I assume, hang back. The desire of the folks who have rushed to meet them is not met by the same level of urgency.’”

“Jesus, again, seems to welcome this interruption. Anyone in ministry must, at some point, come to understand that interruptions are one of the gifts of the work, not the burden. But, the disciples haven’t quite gotten it. In verses we didn’t read today, we learn the disciples want Jesus to send the crowds away to find their own food. They figure there must be a time and place for ministry to happen, and this is not it- not when they are tired and hungry. Clearly, the disciples, the insiders we presume would know, are still figuring out what Jesus is capable of. Jesus is not indefatigable, he does take time away to rest and pray, to eat and celebrate with friends. There is, however, a restlessness to him that makes him different. A level of compassion he possesses the disciples do not. It’s probably even a nod to justice. No one gets to rest, until all get to rest.”

“But, if you sense the same tension [here that] I do, . . . you know this doesn’t make the disciples happy. They are still discovering where their ministry ends and God’s continues. There are some things only Jesus can do, and that is a difficult lesson to learn. And, for those of us who like to be in control, and I suspect there are a few of us in the room, one of the hardest parts of following Jesus is actually just following. There’s that saying, ‘Remember you are not God, and thank God you don’t have to be.’ But, for some of us it’s not that comforting.”

“Letting Jesus be our shepherd is actually not as idyllic as all the lyrics and paintings of this image make it look like. And navigating these boundaries is not something that happens once, but again and again- for the disciples, and for us. . . . ”

“When Jesus got out of the boat alone that day, he was able to show the crowd compassion and love the disciples could not. Oddly enough, the word for compassion in the Greek is related to the word for guts. It sounds a little gross, but what it means is not. God’s compassion is up close and personal, it gets inside us, down to the deepest, neediest, sometimes ugliest parts of us. Theologian Douglas John Hall [[3]] says that ‘compassion is unlike pity, which you can manage from afar.’ I’m guessing the disciples weren’t without pity, but they were tired, and couldn’t muster the energy to saddle up to a needy crowd. And frankly, the crowd didn’t need what they had to offer. That may sound harsh, but other times in scripture when God steps in as the shepherd figure, rather than say, a king, it’s because human beings have failed one another. We can’t do what God can do. We aren’t restless for people as God is restless for people. . . . ”

“The reason those people gathered on the beach that day in ancient Israel was not because they recognized Jesus’ face, or could quote his teachings. They had come to know him as one who heals. The disciples, of course, were still trying to figure out how to do it, and that’s okay- we all are. We can’t do it all, and we can’t do an exhaustive job, either. Only God can handle that kind of compassion.”

“But, we are followers. We are the ones who have been healed at some point along the way, otherwise we wouldn’t be sitting in these pews. And whether we like it or not people see that in us–they recognize it. And recognition creates responsibility, and as spiritual leaders–and now I’m really just including all of you because you’re all capable of it–as spiritual leaders we are called to learn from what happened on this day so long ago. The world needed a shepherd then, and it still does. It’s our job, at the very least, to point him out.”

“After Jesus had performed two miracles, and finally went away for a while to pray, he got back in the boat with the disciples and headed over to Gennesaret. I’m guessing it was a quiet ride, as the disciples sorted out what had happened. I imagine they might have been overwhelmed, wondering if they had made the right choice to follow Jesus. Was it always going to be this exhausting? Of course, we can only guess, but here’s what could also be true. As they docked the boat and saw the crowds once again, gathering, waiting just to brush against the fringe of Jesus’ cloak, I wonder if their hearts swelled with beauty at the sight?  With pride that they were insiders, and gratitude for being invited to learn alongside this compassionate man?  What if that was the moment it all began to make sense for them? The story says, all who touched Jesus that day were healed, and maybe the disciples were, too.”

“These few verses in Mark’s Gospel, which seem rather inconsequential on first read, really encompass the reality of the Christian life. The push and pull of going with Jesus, but not getting out of the boat, of seeing his power among people, but being too tired to or unsure of how to follow. This story reminds us that even though we might consider ourselves insiders, just like the disciples, there is always room for us to be surprised by the depth of God’s love for others, and wonderfully, for us, as well. We too are healed by simply this: we have a God who cares, a God of compassion, a God who is restless until we know it is true. Thanks be to God. Amen.”

Conclusion

The Prayer of Confession was especially meaningful to me for I now sense that God was searching for me until I was found in 1981. The prayer reminded me of the weariness I often feel about the world in need. The last line of the prayer also struck a chord in my heart: “God of new life, in Jesus Christ you show us grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love.”

The sermon put me and other members of the church in the shoes of the tired and hungry disciples, anxious to rest and eat, and not eager to engage in further ministry. The sermon also made us realize that the disciples continued to learn about Jesus and his message throughout their time together. I also was reminded that no one individual can do all that needs to be done in the world, that what each individual does to meet the needs of the world does not have to be perfect or complete, but that each individual needs to do something to help others.

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[1] The Bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website. Other blog posts about Westminster with links established by computer in reverse chronological order of posting is on the website along with a more logical listing of same (without links).

[2] Rev. Buchanan is the retired pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the second largest congregation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (my denomination), a former leader (Moderator) of that denomination and the editor and publisher of The Christian Century. Information about him is found in Facebook and Wikipedia.

[3] Douglas John Hall is emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and the author of many acclaimed and popular works about Christianity.

Pentecost Sunday at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

A moving worship service on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, was celebrated at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Prayer of Confession

During the first part of the service (“Preparing for the Word”) Associate Pastor, Rev. Brennan Blue, led the congregation in a short, meaningful Prayer of Confession: “Almighty God, you poured your Spirit on gathered disciples, creating bold tongues, open ears, and a new community. We confess we hold back your Spirit among us. Transform our timid lives by the power of your presence, and fill us with a flaming desire to be your faithful people. We pray this in the name of Jesus.” (Emphasis added.)

Reading of the Holy Scripture

The second part of the service (“Listening for the Word”) had the reading of the Scriptural passages for the day. First was Genesis 11: 1-9 (NRSV), which states in part:

  • Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. . . . Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”  So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” (Emphases added.)

The New Testament passage was Acts 2: 1-17 (NRSV), which states in part:

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they [the 12 Apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. . . . [Responding to the crowd’s belief that the disciples were drunk and not understanding one another, Peter said,] “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘’In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’” (Emphasis added.)

After the reading (in English) of these passages, Psalm 104 was read simultaneously in Italian, Russian, Korean, German, Pidgin, Arabic and Mandarin. Here is the beginning of its text in English (NRSV): “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment.”

The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Senior Pastor at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, delivered a thought-provoking sermon, “What Happens When Faith Catches Fires?”

“We call it the Tower of Babel, but on a closer read, it turns out to be a story about a city, a city unlike any we know in our time – without discord or diversity. A city without division of culture or ethnicity.” (Emphasis added.)

“’Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” Genesis tells us.(Genesis 11:1).”

“Babel is a city where all are alike. And God is not happy about it. Genesis 11 describes an ancient version of what author Bill Bishop calls The Big Sort: the effort in America – sometimes unconscious, but often intentional – to cluster ourselves into like-minded units. We see it all around us: communities and neighborhoods where we think alike, look alike, act alike, consume alike, worship alike, vote alike.”

“Come, let us build ourselves a city,” the people of Babel said, “And a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” At first blush it seems like a good idea: stick with those in your camp politically, religiously, socially, racially. If need be, make rules to enforce all that sorting out. Put up gates if you have to.” (Emphasis added.)

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.(Genesis 11:1) That’s history according to those who built and ran Babel, those in control. That’s the perspective of privilege, the version of reality those in power want us to believe. But there never has been only one language, one narrative in any community. That’s what Black Lives Matter is telling us. There never has been only one way to tell the story of who we are, and every time some group wants to do that it leads to discrimination and intolerance at best, and sometimes to violence and death. It’s no wonder God wants to confuse their language and, thereby, bless and affirm and celebrate human diversity. It was God’s way of protecting the minority narrative in that ancient city. ‘Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’” (Genesis 11:7) (Emphases added.)

“That’s not the Almighty trying to fend off a human attempt to attain Godlike power, as is often supposed. God has nothing to worry about from humankind. No tower will ever reach the divine precincts. The sin of Babel is not the effort to be like God or to try to reach heaven; it’s the human inclination to exclude the other in an attempt to create a community of one kind only.” (Emphasis added.)

“God wants to terminate our tendency to tribalism. God wants to undercut our capacity to create closed communities that admit – or think of themselves as – only one kind and push the rest out, one way or another. God wants to lift up the narrative of those on the margins of that ancient city, confined to the underside of history of biblical history.“ (Emphasis added.)

“Suddenly things begin to change in Babel. People start asserting their own story in their own way and in their own words. The human family spills out across the land speaking different languages and eating different food and making different music and wearing different clothes and worshipping in different ways. And that’s precisely what God intends. God creates us for that kind of community – diverse, mixed, richly varied in hue and culture and opinion. But we humans never quite get over the dream of building Babel.” (Emphasis added.)

The result is what we have today among the peoples of the earth, in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, and, even, our churches. It shows up among those on the right and among those on the left. It’s found wherever people work toward ideological purity, wherever people write off “the other” not like them. Pentecost is God’s attempt to put an end to all that, to put an end to Babel’s hold on the human heart. For fire to burn there has to be heat, and there was heat that day in the flames that danced above their heads. For fire to burn there has to be air, and there was air that day in the rush of a mighty wind. For fire to burn there has to be fuel, and there was something ready to burn that day, in the hearts of those gathered. Faith catches fire on Pentecost.”(Emphases added.)

“Those lit up by the wind and flame that day are the same people they were before the conflagration and chaos. Nothing has changed. Injustice it still injustice. Despair still abounds in the world. Human enmity still has a stranglehold on the people of the earth, and yet there is something burning now in their hearts that gives them hope, something that gives them courage they never thought they would have.”

When faith catches fire the future opens wide. In contrast, at Babel the future is foreclosed by human pride. The Tower we build is a mountain of individualism and self-importance and fear of those not like us – a tower that wants to have supremacy in our lives, as if we were better than others, as if we did not need one another, as if we were not made stronger by the different voices of the human family. Babel has no future in either its ancient or modern forms. (Emphasis added.)

“This isn’t the detached stuff of abstract religion; it’s the stuff of real human life. We face it every day, at school and at work, on the street and in the news, and certainly, in this season, in our politics. We politely call it “polarization,” but that’s just another name for all of us striving for Babel, where, to God’s distress, ‘The whole earth’ – supposedly – ‘had one language and the same words.’” (Emphases added.)

The future belongs to Pentecost, not Babel. It belongs to those who discover in their very differences a oneness that had always been there but they had not seen before. The people at Pentecost are still Parthians and Elamites, Cretans and Arabs, Romans and Egyptians, but by the power of the Spirit they have figured out how to build community. They listen and hear one another for the first time.” (Emphasis added.)

Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. When faith catches fire the insurmountable is suddenly not so overwhelming, the distance from here to justice is shortened, and that which once seemed impossible becomes something that might actually happen. You and I have hearts that need heating up. The wind of Pentecost is already blowing. The flames are dancing all around us. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God.” (Emphasis added.)

Conclusion

I had never studied or thought about the two main scriptural passages except I remember the Tower of Babel as a tale of a place where people talked in different languages (in a babel of confusing tongues) and the Pentecost passage as a hard-to-believe tale of people understanding one another when they spoke in different languages.

I see the Genesis passage as describing people who only spoke one language and who were supremely proud and self-confident. They were building a tower “to make a name for themselves.” In other words, they suffered under the sin of pride. God did not like that situation and, therefore, made them speak different languages to make it more difficult to get along by themselves. It was an affirmative action program of creating diversity. Just think what a boring world it would be today if the earth were occupied by over seven billion identical human clones.

As the Senior Pastor said, “Jesus tells us to love one another, even to love our enemies. When faith catches fire that’s what happens. Barriers are overcome, strangers welcomed, the outcast brought back in. . . . You and I have hearts that need heating up. Our faith is starting to catch fire, and when it does, the gates of Babel shall not prevail against it.”

But we need to confess that we hold back God’s Spirit among us and that  our timid lives need to be transformed by the power of God’s presence so that we have a flaming desire to be God’s faithful people.

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[1] The bulletin for this service is available online as is the text of the sermon.