The Unimportance of being Earnest

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43 offered to the people of Marsh Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts. A recording of the sermon and the service where it was preached may be heard here.

In 1935, Thomas P. O’Neill, the legendary Massachusetts politician and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, ran for a seat on the City Council in Cambridge. In what was to be the only electoral defeat in his long political career, O’Neill lost the race by 228 votes. Though imgres-1Tip was understandably disappointed, he derived two important lessons from the experience of losing that city council race. One came from his father, a local legend in his own right who advised O’Neill that he did not spend enough time campaigning in his own neighborhood. “All politics is local,” he counseled with a phrase that was to become O’Neill’s trademark. The other lesson came from Mrs. Elizabeth O’Brien, a neighbor whom Tip had known since childhood. On Election Day, Mrs. O’Brien somewhat haughtily told her young neighbor, “Tom, I’m going to vote for you even though you didn’t ask me.” O’Neill was taken aback: “Mrs. O’Brien,” he protested, “I’ve lived across the street from you for eighteen years. I cut your grass in the summer and shovel your walk in the winter. I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote.” “Tom, let me tell you something,” she replied. “People like to be asked.” Tip got a lot of mileage out of this story; when O’Neill became Majority Whip in Congress, Hale Boggs of Louisiana heard the Mrs. O’Brien story so frequently that he would roll his eyes at the first hint of its coming. Even though it became a cliche, this story reveals an important truth, not only about politics, but about the human condition. No matter how earnest and talented we may be, it is our participation in the community that is most important. While assumptions and good intentions have their place, there is no substitute for reaching outside of ourselves and remembering that people like to be asked.

This morning we hear two passages from Scripture that would have met with Mrs. O’Brien’s approval. As you probably remember, we have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians for the past several weeks. Second Corinthians has some of Paul’s most eloquent language, from “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” to “ We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive.” In the first seven chapters of Second Corinthians, Paul is firing on all cylinders, affirming the power of the resurrection and the endurance of the Christian community. Today, however, Paul shifts gears a little bit, and begins to address some practical concerns, namely fundraising. You see, apart from proclaiming the gospel, the primary objective of Paul’s ministry is to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. It is one of the few directives he received from the other apostles, and he takes the responsibility very seriously. As such, almost every Pauline letter has at least some reference to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem: either thanking the community for its support or encouraging them to open their pocketbooks. Second Corinthians falls into the latter category. Paul tells the Corinthians how impressed he is with their enthusiasm for the gospel and the work of the Church, and further explains that their zeal ought to be matched by material support: “it is appropriate for you who began last year…to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” It sounds remarkably like an NPR pledge drive, doesn’t it? But Paul is not simply asking for money. Notice the way he frames his request: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul is not encouraging a mere redistribution of resources; he is framing financial generosity, as he frames everything, within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s love; it’s the affirmation that God’s love truly bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, even death. And it is the resurrection that Paul has in mind when he says, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” Far from simply soliciting a contribution to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, Paul is suggesting that the Corinthians’ financial gift makes a profound statement about the way they look at the world. Yes, Paul is asking the members of the congregation to put their money where their mouth is, but he is also drawing a subtle, but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between the desire to help and the will to help, between assuming and asking. Just as God’s love was revealed to be genuine in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul implies that our love is revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves.

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New Testament scholarship can make one hungry.

This is also the implication of today’s gospel reading. This passage from Mark’s gospel is a great example of an intercalation, known more colloquially as a “Markan sandwich.” A Markan sandwich is composed of two stories, which, when read together, reveal a larger truth. In this case, the “filling” for the sandwich is the story about the hemorrhaging woman, while the “bread” is the story about Jairus’ daughter. The similarities between these stories are obvious: both depict women who have their health restored, both feature the number “twelve” prominently (probably a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel), and both celebrate the power of faith. But the most interesting similarity between these stories is that they depict people reaching outside of themselves across social boundaries. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue; he comes from a caste that naturally distrusts Jesus and other upstarts. Jairus, however, reaches out to Jesus in spite of the social implications. Mark uses the imperfect tense to describe this interaction, indicating that Jairus kept asking Jesus, repeatedly violating social norms on behalf of his sick daughter. The hemorrhaging woman crosses an even more formidable boundary than Jairus. Not only is she a woman reaching out to a man in a patriarchal culture, her condition renders her unclean according to the Jewish Law. By reaching out to Jesus, she violates not only social convention but the Law of Moses itself. Nevertheless, she reaches out to Jesus, aware that her earnestness will only take her so far. Both Jairus and the woman Jesus heals understand that love is only revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves. With this intercalation, Mark illustrates the subtle but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking.

Those of you who have spent any amount of time in the Church know that it tends to be a hotbed of earnestness. When faced with an issue, our impulse is to create a committee to discuss it and to conceive of possible solutions, all while assuming that we know best. Then, if we fail or do not achieve the desired result, we are inclined to give up, saying something to the effect of, “Well, at least we tried.” Earnestness has an incredibly short shelf-life. It is suited to the quick fix, to the cause celebre, to the armchair activist, to the easy answer. The gospel, however, does not call us to earnestness; it calls us to genuine love. Genuine love asks us to reach outside of ourselves, it asks us to violate social conventions, it asks us to acknowledge we do not have all the answers. And even when our efforts at communication and bridge-building fail, genuine love asks that we, like Jairus, keep asking, keep striving to be in relationship, keep forging the bonds of affection that build up the body of Christ. Above all, genuine love asks us to recognize what we share in common with the people around us. While earnestness demands that we see the world as a collection of causes, genuine love invites us to see the people of this world as sisters and brothers, as members of the same body, as those for whom Christ died.

Ten days ago, this country was appalled, angered, and saddened to hear about the murder of nine Black Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Everything about this terrorist act was horrifying: the fact that it took place in a house of worship, the fact that the murderer exploited the hospitality of those he murdered, the fact that he left someone alive to repeat his hateful message. Naturally, people from every walk of life have expressed their outrage at this atrocity. They have clamored for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public buildings and for a dramatic reevaluation of our gun laws. There is no question that these are necessary steps to take: symbols of bygone rebellions have no place in the halls of government and our nation must examine its idolatrous preoccupation with firearms. Ultimately, however, these steps are symbolic. The problems that led to this massacre will not be solved when the stars and bars are taken down from outside the South Carolina state house, nor will they disappear when it is harder to purchase a deadly weapon. For all of our earnest desire to “do something” in the wake of this tragedy, we must adopt a perspective of genuine love, recognizing that the sin of racism cannot be undone through symbolic and legislative acts. Genuine love requires us to reach outside of ourselves across the walls that separate us. It requires that we be willing to ask our sisters and brothers about their experience of the world, recognizing that their answers may make us uncomfortable. All the while, we must trust in the God who is reconciling all things to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, our response to the tragedy in Charleston requires us to recognize the crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking. Earnestness assumes that systemic racism is confined to one part of the country. Genuine love recognizes that all of us are complicit in a racist system of oppression. Earnestness looks for quick fixes. Genuine love recognizes that the problems we face do not have easy answers. Earnestness is a solitary endeavor. Genuine love works toward Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Earnestness says “somebody ought to do something about this.” Genuine love asks if that “somebody” might be me. Most importantly, earnestness tells us to give up every time we fall short. Genuine love encourages us to keep asking, keep striving, keep working, keep trusting that the walls that separate us can and will be dismantled, because God has renewed creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be more than earnest and well-intentioned; we are called to be genuine: we are called to build up the Beloved Community, to ask our sisters and brothers to share in the new creation, and to reach outside of ourselves with genuine and reconciling love.

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If

Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1895, Rudyard Kipling offered some paternal advice in the form of a poem entitled “If.” The poem covers a whole range of topics: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting…If you can dream—and not make dreams your master…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster…If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue.” This long series of increasingly challenging antecedents ends with Kipling saying, “then you will be a man.” Though this poem has become standard fodder for graduation cards, it has a wistful quality. These four stanzas articulate a nearly impossible standard; it is as though Kipling is saying, “I wish I had been able to do all this; perhaps you can.” This attitude tends to prevail whenever we ask “what if” questions. Invariably, we are asking them because we wish things had turned out differently, because we wonder where we went wrong, or because we know that nothing about our lives can really change.

This morning, we hear Jesus asking some “what if” questions while using one of his most well-worn teaching techniques. While parables were not an uncommon way to get one’s point across in the ancient world, Jesus raises them to an entirely new level in the gospels. Indeed, in the passage we read this morning, Mark tells us that Jesus speaks to certain audiences only in parables, that all of his teaching is packaged in these cryptic stories. The ubiquity of these parables has some interesting consequences for the way we interpret them. For the most part, we tend to read the parables of Jesus as allegories: we try to figure out who each character in the story is supposed to be. imgresOrigen, the great third century theologian, takes this way of reading parables to its logical extreme. In his allegorical interpretation the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, Origen suggests that the man who was going down the road is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, Jericho is the world, the robbers are the hostile powers, the priest is the Law, the Levite is the prophets, the Samaritan is Christ, the wounds are disobedience, the pack animal is the Lord’s body, the inn is the Church, you get the idea. While this wooden way of interpreting parables can be interesting, even fun, I think that it misses the point of what the parables of Jesus are supposed to accomplish. The word parable comes from the Greek words for “toss alongside.” A parable is something we hold up next to a situation in order to see what unexpected truths might be revealed. The parables of Jesus, in other words, are not allegorical stories that describe the world as it is; they are lenses through which we can see the world in an entirely new way.

This is particularly true in the seed parables from the fourth chapter of Mark. Jesus himself indicates that these images are meant to be held up alongside the subject we are considering. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” he asks. “What parable will we use for it?” Jesus’ tone is intriguing. Rather than articulating definitively what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus offers propositions, asking his audience,“What if the kingdom of God is like this?” Now the kingdom of God is one of those biblical images that has become somewhat muddled since the time of Jesus. Most of us assume that it is simply shorthand for “heaven,” which of course, has become shorthand for “the place you go when you die.” The kingdom of God, in other words, is not something that we think about with any regularity. For Jesus and his hearers, however, the kingdom of God was an ever present reality, the hope of every faithful Israelite. It was the promise that God would break the yoke of oppression and rule with justice and equity. More than a few zealots attempted to bring the kingdom of God into being on their own, only to be violently thwarted by the Roman occupiers. “Kingdom of God,” in other words, was a loaded term that connoted rebellion and sweeping social change. So in many ways, the prosaic images Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God are unexpected, even shocking. First, he wonders aloud if the way that seeds germinate and grow overnight can help us think about God’s reign. With this parable, urlJesus invites us to consider whether the arrival of God’s kingdom is something that happens without our knowledge or influence, much to the surprise of Israel’s violent rebels. Jesus further ponders whether the kingdom of God can be compared with a mustard seed, which though very small, produces a significant shrub. Most gardeners consider mustard to be a weed; once mustard takes root, it is incredibly difficult to remove. By using this image, Jesus asks us to consider both the tenacity and the ordinariness of God’s kingdom. What’s interesting is that Jesus uses these examples not to make concrete statements about the nature of God’s reign, but to fire our imaginations, to help us envision how God is working in the world.

If this is what these parables are meant to do, we cannot stop there. If Jesus is asking “What if the kingdom of God is like this?” the implicit next question is “what difference would that make?” In other words, if these parables are meant to give us a new way of looking at the world, we have to ask ourselves what it means for us to see the world in this new way. What if the kingdom of God is like the sprouting of a seed? What if the kingdom of God is like an invasive plant species? How would that change the way we think about God? How would that change the way we live our lives? Would we be more attentive to the thousands of tiny ways that God’s glory is revealed to us? Would we look for signs of the kingdom in places we would not normally expect? Would we trust that God is working God’s purpose out? Would we be more confident that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea?

Human beings tend to be creatures of habit. We like to find a routine and stick with it. We move through this life assuming that everything will essentially stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, that nothing about our lives can really change. For us, asking “what if” questions is generally an exercise in nostalgia. With these parables, however, Jesus challenges us think about how our “what ifs” can become reality. Jesus invites us to dream of a world that radiates the glory of God. He encourages us to wonder whether the most uninteresting moments of our lives can somehow be signposts for God’s kingdom. Jesus asks us to ponder how the world can change if we just look at it differently, if we see it not as a hopeless place of despair and suffering, but as a beautiful place that is charged with God’s grandeur. Jesus invites us to look for beauty in unlovely places, to claim joy in desperate moments, and to celebrate life even the face of death. Jesus invites all of us to wonder: what if the kingdom of God was like you and me challenging expectations and revealing God’s glory to the world?