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Mark 12:35-40

September 23, 2020

While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” Mark 12:35-40

Today we continue with this series of exchanges between Jesus and his opponents, the Sadducees and the scribes. Remembering David, Jesus fires another broadside at the Sadducees who don’t believe in the resurrection and teach that God’s Law has been cast in stone (except when they twist that law to their own advantage.) The crowd loves to see that one. Today Jesus teaches them, and us, a lesson about hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a problem for all of us. The word itself comes from the Greek theater where the same actor would play several roles, each differentiated by the hand-held masks they would hold up for each role. This is where the phrase being “two-faced” comes from. A hypocrite is someone who says one thing but does another. They play to the crowd. They shamelessly live with a radical disconnection between the values they espouse and the reality of their words, actions, and true beliefs.

The Sadducees and the scribes were easy targets for Jesus’ assertion of the depth of their hypocrisy. Both groups held significant societal power. What they said and did made a difference in the lives of everybody else. But they didn’t wield that power for the common good – they did so only to enrich themselves as they basked in the glow of their positions.

Jesus says, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Notice that Jesus said, “They devour widows’ houses…” If you have any understanding or appreciation for the Bible, then you know full well that there is a preferential place in God’s heart for widows, orphans, strangers, foreigners, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the poor, the sick, and the lost. Jesus has absolutely no interest in helping the rich get richer or the so-called “honored” among us getting more acclaim.

Both the Sadducees and the scribes had powerful positions of impact in the lives of others. Human community requires such roles. It is why football requires referees and baseball requires umpires. We need leaders and we need rules and we need leaders who follow the rules.

What are the rules which God sets in place for all of us to follow? To love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The hypocritical Sadducees and scribes among us – no matter how often they abuse the word by using it – wouldn’t recognize love if you spotted them three of the four letters.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, today we will be mindful, in ourselves and others, of how our words and actions align with the deeper values which you have placed in our hearts. Open our ears and open our hearts to the acid of hypocrisy lest it eat what is best in us and leach into the soil of our common life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:28-34

September 22, 2020

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. Mark 12:28-34

Whenever you read “the scribes” in the Bible, imagine a small-town lawyer. They were the local experts on the law as a means of structuring community life – marriages, divorces, contracts, mortgages, etc. Some assumed powerful positions as administrative assistants to the ruling class. In Mark – except in the case of this exchange – they were primary adversaries of Jesus.

Listen closely to how Jesus answers the question posed by the scribe. Jesus goes beyond Moses’ tablets of stone. Jesus cuts through to the more fundamental idea that lies behind and beneath the Law. Life is about BOTH loving God and loving our neighbors.

Jesus quotes the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” So far, so good. Jesus reaches back to Deuteronomy 6, something that parents were supposed to teach their children every day of their lives. But then he goes beyond that.

Jesus adds, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Life is about BOTH loving God AND loving our neighbor. Life is about love. Even the scribe admits to that truth.

Many people live with a very transactional, if-then, concept of God. That is certainly the theology underlying Deuteronomy. “If you do good, God will bless you; if you do bad, God will destroy you.” Certainly doing good is a good thing….but we are sinful people and we can quickly twist “good deeds” into self-righteousness, pride, superiority, and privilege. We’re Number One! Soon we think we own God. We control God based on what we do or don’t do.

History is full of examples of people doing atrocious things to other people even as they convince themselves that they are following God’s will. What’s love got to do with that?

The corrective to self-righteousness and tribalism is the call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus didn’t invent this idea. It is the logic of God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s call to justice and righteousness. This a relational, because/therefore, concept of God. Because I trust that God loves me, therefore I will love my neighbor.

Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Even if that means wearing a mask in public, social distancing, and purposely choosing not to gather people together in large indoor crowds. Even if that means not name-calling, scape-goating, blaming, misleading, or manipulating our neighbor.

If you think you are loving God while behaving unlovingly toward others, you are kidding yourself.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, to love you is to trust you, to follow you, to obey you, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Help us be loving today. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:18-27

September 21, 2020

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that ‘if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” Mark 12:18-27

The Sadducees were more than the priestly class of Jews in Jesus’ day, they were the “strict constitutionalists”. Just like modern day conservatives who constantly grouse about “strict constitutionalism” – as if James Madison and the others drafted it on unchanging tablets of stone – the Sadducees only accepted the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, as holy scripture. They rejected all the “modern” scriptures, the historical books, the wisdom literature, and the prophets. And because of that, they didn’t believe in the idea of the resurrection of the dead, a concept you won’t find in the Pentateuch.

Which was very convenient for them. The privileged status the Sadducees enjoyed was actually born, not at Creation or even in their beloved book of Leviticus, but it stretched back to Zadok, the high priest at the time Solomon built the first Temple. Those were the glory days of Israel’s imagination – glorious because Israel enjoyed a brief period as an independent people, profiting mightily from its geographic blessings as center of trade. It wouldn’t last.

All of that ended with the fall of Israel to the Babylonians and the Babylonian Exile. After that dark period, the returning exiles sought to rebuild Jerusalem, including the construction of the Second Temple. The party of the Sadducees kicked into gear. They re-membered history to reassert what they claimed was their God-given role to control the business operations of the Temple. By the time Jesus came around, they were the richest members of Jewish society, their pockets filled with the profits of the Temple, their lavish homes a sign of their privileged status. All of which was made possible because of their embrace of their Roman occupiers.

Jesus – like all the prophets of old – was a threat to their privilege. Jesus had to go. So they set him up. They played the “whataboutism” word games that the powerful love to deploy which cloak their idolatrous grasp of power. They challenge him with their silly hypothetical of a woman whose husbands kept dying.

Jesus sees through their self-justifying charade. He doesn’t hesitate to challenge their hypocrisy. He tells them they are wrong. Why? Because they don’t care about the scriptures or the power of God. “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?”

All they care about is maintaining the myth of their own superiority and privileged status. If that meant that Jesus had to go, so be it.

I don’t want to be a Sadducee.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we always are tempted to twist faith into a self-serving scheme to gain privileged status, in this life and the next. You are the Living God, may we find our life in you. Give us the humility to see when we are wrong and the courage to speak truth to power. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Welcome Back

September 20, 2020

When we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way!
While we do His good will, He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet.
Or we’ll walk by His side in the way.
What He says we will do, where He sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Sometime in my childhood? Sometime after that? I have no idea where and when I first sang this song. But it got inside of me. Even before I truly entrusted my life to Jesus, that song was there. It still sings within me.

I quit writing these Daily Devotions back in July. Sometimes things just jolt me. They leave me flabbergasted. Sometimes my daily rituals change. And when that happens, I can’t write Daily Devotions anymore. Or better, I re-enter a season where “obey” doesn’t include writing every morning.

And then something happens.

This time that “something” is a Facebook reply from a guy I drew up with back in Wahpeton. I met Kraig in kindergarten. The first time I ever saw a color television in anyone’s home was a Saturday morning at Kraig’s. His mom was our den mother when I tried to be a Cub Scout. (I’m still jealous that Lane Wateland got to be Abraham Lincoln and I was a slave in paper chains with a charcoal black face in our skit at Bethel Lutheran Church.)

Kraig and I don’t see the world in the same way. Grew up in the same town. Same school. Same teachers. At least through grade school, same friends. So how is it that we see things so differently?

Maybe it is life experience. His home life was very different than mine. Sports became my life; Kraig’s life went a different direction. And, that one day in the summer after my first year in college, I gave my life to God (as best as I could understand the concept way back then) and everything changed for me. I trust that Kraig is on his own spiritual journey. Maybe it is that.

Trust and obey, there’s no better way.

I love Paul’s vulnerability with the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

I’m not saying that I work harder than anyone else – there is no way that is true – but I do pray that God’s grace toward me has not been in vain.

So today marks a new chapter in my life. As I continue to serve God and the community at Faith Lutheran Church, as what I do spreads through social media, I will trust and obey that it is time for me to write in the mornings again.

You may or may not like that. You may or may not like or agree with something I write. I’m not in charge of that. My work is to pass on what I see and hear in the connections between the Word and our lives that day. Feel free to post any replies you wish.

As this new chapter begins, I am confident that God’s Word will continue to be both a comfort and a challenge as it guides us through life. It will continue to be the two-edged sword it has always been.

Thank you, Kraig, for inviting me to do what it is that I sense God calling me to do. Trust and obey, there’s no better way.

Mark 12:13-17

July 14, 2020

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. Mark 12:13-17

Let’s begin with the audience. The Pharisees are our old friends. They were the parish pastors of Jesus’ day. The Moral Majority. The Back to the Bible folks. Less interested in politics than personal morality, they were intent on teaching and practicing the Jewish laws – all 613 of them – believing that if all of Israel kept the law…even for one day…the Messiah would come. Let’s give them credit for their passion and religious devotion (even though they were largely unconscious of how self-serving it all was.)

The Herodians, on the other hand, WERE interested in politics. Specifically, they were supporters of the Herodian dynasty in Israel. Which meant, short of kicking Rome out (which wasn’t going to happen), they took the “go along to get along” approach.

Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t get along – but there is nothing like a common enemy to bring people together who otherwise don’t have much time for each other. Jesus was a threat to both of them. To the Pharisees, he was a lawless charlatan who captured the attention of too many people. To the Herodians, he was a danger to the status quo that served their purposes very nicely. So they went after Jesus.

The irony in this story is that the Pharisees and the Herodians both recognized that there was something deeply true about Jesus. It IS right to treat people without partiality, “truth” IS at the heart of a godly way of being in the world. They knew that…but those principles were not demonstrated in their lives. Mark tells us they were hypocrites.

They attack Jesus with a question, asking him whether or not they ought to pay taxes. It was a trick question. The question was intended to divide Jesus from the people who followed him. It was an invitation for Jesus to get in trouble with the Romans if he said “no” – or in trouble with the crowds who followed him if he said “yes” as they resented the heavy tax burdens Rome imposed and hoped Jesus would remove the Romans once and for all. So Jesus turned the question back on them.

Give the emperor’s money back to him…but what were they to give to God? We know the answer, don’t we? Give God your heart. Your devotion. Your loyalty. Your faith. Your life.

We ought never turn that around by giving our money to God while our “emperor for the day” gets our hearts. Doing so would easily be recognized as hypocrisy.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, in all things, in all areas of our personal and public lives, keep us always open-minded to seeking the truth that is your way of being in the world. Bless and protect all leaders who seek the public good and turn our hearts always to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 12:1-12

July 13, 2020

Then Jesus began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.

He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. Mark 12:1-12

The first thing you will want to know about this parable is “Who are THEY?”

  • Jesus began to speak to THEM…
  • …to collect from THEM
  • THEY seized him and beat him…
  • Finally he sent him to THEM…

It is human nature. The darkest side of human nature. Fallen human nature. You can call it the “blame game” or the “self-justification game” or the “victim game” or just plain old “hide & seek.” Call it whatever you want but it is the same game that people have been playing since first set free in the Garden.

We just LOVE to watch THEM get it…like we think THEY deserve to get it.

So who are THEY? The easy answer requires a quick peek at the end of chapter 11. There it is – “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.” THEY are the ones who are going to get cast out of the vineyard. Is that a pleasing answer to you?

Historically, Christians have done two things with stories like this one. First, they blamed Jews for the death of Jesus (which is a bad thing) and used that as justification to do horrific things to Jews for 2000 years. Second, they explained the death of Jesus as a necessary step in God’s plan for salvation (which would make it a good thing) but said that the benefits of said death would be available to all, but only given to the select few who signed up.

You might think of it as “One exclusivist mindset and system replacing another exclusivist mindset and system.” The end result? You still get to have a THEM to look down on.

Do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, such a reading pleases God?

Here is another reading: There is only WE. We share the vineyard. We share its fruits. There is enough for all. The owner isn’t in a distant country but right here. With us. Among us. In us. The tenants would have realized that had they not killed their teachers.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we sense the greed, selfishness, and fear that lurks within us and is expressed in all we do to get status, security, and control. We know the truth. We are the ones who want to keep the vineyard all to ourselves. Forgive us and lead us to a new way of being. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:27-33

July 10, 2020

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”

Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.”

They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” —they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”

And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Mark 11:27-33

We’ve heard much about authority in this 11th chapter of Mark. We’ve seen political and religious authorities who were threatened by Jesus and soon will seek his death. We’ve witnessed Jesus expressing his own authority in disrupting the temple and cursing the fig tree. And we have also been reminded of our own authority – to forgive the sins of others even as we seek our own forgiveness.

Now the chapter closes with a final verbal jousting match with the official religious types. Ironically, forgetting that their own authority is derived from God, they question Jesus about HIS authority. How will Jesus handle this attack?

Jesus answers their question with a question. It is a question that isn’t seeking an answer. It is seeking – and it gets – a response. A response that exposes the religious leaders for what they are. People who don’t give a rip about the truth or the faith. All they care about is preserving their positions, their power, their status. All they care about is pleasing the crowd that they count on for their own livelihoods.

This is a real temptation in our lives. We are so often driven far less by “What does loving our neighbors look like?” than by “What will the neighbors think of us?” Or we try to sneak out from under the challenge of our faith with our version of seeking loopholes, “So who truly IS my neighbor?”

This temptation to trade popularity for principles, to focus on people pleasing rather than people serving, remains a constant tension. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Ultimately it comes down to which authority we will submit to in our lives. The opponents of Jesus want to retain their own authority so they attack Jesus. They think that Jesus is “beneath them.” Their authority puts them on top. In charge. Their attitude is “no one is the boss of me!” If you think about that, it is pretty childish, even petty. Is it all that hard to imagine that people with institutional authority could be childish or petty?

Jesus, on the other hand, needs no institutional authority. Jesus IS authority – the author and giver of life. Thus the stance we take as followers of Jesus is humility, surrender, and obedience. We realize that the earthly authority we are given, institutional or otherwise, is derived from God who has put us in positions to love and serve our neighbors.

Of course all of us have to struggle with our own childishness, pettiness, and self-importance. The good news is that God never gives up on us.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you design and sustain the world as an interdependent ecosystem that has a place and purpose for all things. Help us not only find our place but to be content with our place, surrendering again and again to your lordship in our lives, not seeking to be above others but always to love others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:20-25

July 9, 2020

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:20-25

We start again with the fig tree. Fig trees are amazingly productive. Once past their first year, they produce fruit once or twice a year. They can remain productive for decades. But not this one. It is withered to its roots. (It is hard not to notice how the unproductive fig tree frames the story of Jesus attacking the perversion of the temple.)

But I find something else very interesting about these verses. Open your Bible. Turn to the 11th chapter of Mark. Do you see verse 26? Quite likely, you don’t.

I use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV). Verse 26 only appears in a footnote in my Bible. As it does in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New International Version (NIV). It doesn’t even show up in the Living Bible (LB) or the New Living Translation (NLT).

Here is what the footnote says: “Other ancient authorities add verse 26, ‘But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’” Interesting, isn’t it, that those who decide such things, decided this verse didn’t belong in the main text?

I do want to note that verse 26 DOES appear in the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV) AND in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, the Message (MG).

Why would some include it while others relegate it to a footnote? Bible scholars would no doubt argue about the veracity of the underlying manuscript sources…but I’m suspicious.

I’m thinking, on a practical level, verse 26 makes the faith all too real and maybe too hard. It is possible, self-centered as we are, to hear the words “Forgive us our trespasses” very clearly as we pray the Lord’s Prayer without paying much attention at all to “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” The missing verse 26 removes any uncertainty about the centrality of God’s will that we forgive one another – not just that we seek God’s forgiveness to make sure and secure our place in the boat.

Personally, this is just my opinion, but if Mark had asked me as he wrote his Jesus story, I would much rather include verse 26 and drop the metaphor of the mountain and the sea. What Jesus is doing in this passage is encouraging us to pray always – coming on the heels of his declaration of the temple as a house of prayer – because prayer keeps us in relationship with God. Prayer helps us remember that God is God and we’re not – and that we are never alone.

Jesus isn’t equating prayer with a Celestial Amazon Order for people who REALLY believe. Even if you’re heard TV preachers promising a miraculous godly harvest after you’ve done your generosity thing. That is not the Christian faith. That is the con of a charlatan.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we remember this morning that 7 of the 10 commandments have to do with loving our neighbor. We get it. This matters to you. You want your love not only to be real but to be realized in our lives, and that happens when we let your love flow through us in forgiving others, even as we find the peace that comes when others forgive us. Let that not only be our prayer but our practice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:12-19

July 8, 2020

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?

But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. Mark 11:12-19

Yesterday, it was the crowds along the street. Today, it is the vendors in the temple square. One day posed a challenge to the authority of the political authorities. Today the challenge is to the religious authorities.

But what about that fig tree?

Many years ago, a church member brought up this passage with me. It had bothered her since childhood. How could Jesus get so angry with a fig tree? And then she made the fatal leap –  “If Jesus could get so angry at an unproductive fig tree, how would Jesus judge her should she prove to be an unproductive Christian?”

My heart went out to her. No doubt someone had drilled some pretty bent ideas about the Christian faith into her head while growing up. Not unusual ideas – Christianity as a meritocracy. Christianity as an apologist for the individualism and “climb the ladder” mentality of American culture. Christianity – and the threat of eternal punishment that some make so much of – as a deterrent against bad behavior. She swallowed it all. Christianity as behavioral manipulation.

I get that. Especially when we are children, we are wide open to the ideas given to us by the authority figures in our lives. We can be deeply wounded without any awareness from those who wounded us. That is the problem with authority figures. They can be dangerous.

Especially when their goal is to retain, at any cost, their authority. Even, maybe especially, amongst religious authorities.

Why? (And I write as somewhat of a religious authority given my official role in my congregation.) Because we need to eat. We have to make a living somehow. Ours is a service industry. Clergy are dependent on the generosity of others even given the reality that the IRS makes us stamp every year-end statement with the assurance that those who have given have not received anything of actual value in return.

When Jesus attacks the temple vendors, he is attacking the position and authority of the religious leaders. He threatened their livelihoods. I get that – especially in these days of the pandemic when our expensive buildings sit empty and the real heart of the faith – Word and Sacrament, Christian community – has to happen from a distance.

I’m not at all surprised to hear about churches that insist on public worship despite the warnings coming from public health authorities. No public worship – no physical offering? Could money be the real driving force?

It certainly was in Jesus’ day. What to do? What to do? What to do? Time to get rid of him.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we are mindful of the many ways that people can be manipulated by those who invoke your name for their own selfish purposes. We are mindful of those whose faith has been twisted by fear. May we always live by faith, not driven by fear or finances. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:8-11

July 7, 2020

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. Mark 11:8-11

I’ve been to Jerusalem. I’ve walked from the parking lot on the Mount of Olives, past the Garden of Gethsemane, across the bottom of the valley, and through the gate to the Old City. I’ve walked the narrow streets of the Via Dolorosa. Those memories come back when I read today’s text. I can easily imagine the crowds that gathered.

Jerusalem was filled with Passover pilgrims. It is easy to imagine Jesus drawing a crowd. A few followers, lots of rubberneckers.

We ought not be overly impressed by crowds. The Rolling Stones and what’s left of the Grateful Dead can still draw huge crowds. So can car accidents and burning buildings. We ought never equate popularity with principles, integrity, or honor.

We also ought never forget how differently those crowds could be defined. Some saw religious pilgrims honoring a man they believed to be the Messiah. Others – read “those in power” – would have seen those same crowds as protesters, an angry mob, anarchists, fringe radicals. The last thing Pontius Pilate would have wanted was word getting back to Rome that he was losing control of the city.

So, what to do? What to do? What to do?

Address the system that allowed the few to exploit the labor and lives of the many, leading to the very oppression that Jesus was intent on freeing people from? Canceling the temple taxes that went directly to Rome, thereby freeing people from their burden and allowing the temple to again be a house of prayer for all people rather than a marketplace for exploiting peoples’ spirituality? Granting freedom to the slaves that Romans so freely captured, bought, sold, and abused?

No. That would be too complicated. That would be too disruptive.

Better to just arrest and kill the rabble-rouser. Hang him on a cross as the sort of public spectacle – like a lynching – that would make it crystal clear to the general public that nothing was going to change the status quo. Shut up. Give up, Get in line. Or else you will get it too.

As crazy as these days are in which we are living, never before has the mission, ministry, and gospel of Jesus shown with such clarity.

Let us pray: Like those first crowds, O Lord, we often seek you only for what we want and when we want it. We lose sight of the many reasons that people were drawn to you and the authorities were threatened by you. Let none of that deter us from striving always toward love of our neighbors. In Jesus’ name. Amen.