18th Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the last of all and servant of all. Amen
There’s a term I came across recently, GOAT,
no I didn’t just learn about goats the animals that eat everything,
GOAT is an acronym standing for
Greatest Of All Time,
it’s one of the pastimes of sports fans and commentators
to debate who is the GOAT of their favorite sport.
I did an internet search
and from a cursory glance
it seems like the most popular GOAT debate is in basketball
Michael Jordan vs LeBron James,
(though Serena Williams looks to be a hot contender for GOAT of tennis).
I even found an article in Sports Illustrated
titled “The Art of the GOAT Debate: MJ vs LeBron Examined”
where the author went as far as consulting a college debate coach
to dissect the discussion.
In doing so the debate coach, a Dr. Scott Harris
made two points I found particularly relevant:
one, he remarked “People never win arguments in sports because people tend not to recognize when they’re losing as much at it. They just think ‘I’m right and it doesn’t matter what you say.”
the GOAT debate is really just an argument,
if it were a true debate
those involved would be open to having their mind changed by their debate partner,
as it is people tend to go into the conversation with their minds made up.
The second point he made
was that before the merits of each particular player can even be brought out on the table
you have “to establish a definition of what constitutes ‘greatest’ and the criteria used to determine greatness.”
What makes someone great is subjective,
each of us admire different qualities in our basketball players,
some place higher value on teamwork,
while others admire brute force.
All of which is to say that to engage in an argument
over who is the greatest
is generally an exercise in futility,
it will never be fully resolved
because the definition of greatest is always changing
depending on the time and place.
In our gospel for today
the disciples argue with one another
over who is the greatest
leading Jesus to teach them the definition of the greatest
according to the kingdom of God.
Now of course they don’t just start arguing this out of the blue,
Jesus, traveling with his disciples
hosts another teaching session
where for a second time he tells them
what’s going to happen to him,
he will be betrayed, killed and after three days rise again
and Mark tells us that
“they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”
They don’t understand,
And they don’t ask for help
So they do what we all do
when we don’t understand and don’t ask for clarification,
they concentrate on the part they do understand
even if it’s only half the picture
the part they do get
is that Jesus has said once again that he is going to die,
which means they will be left on their own without their leader
so as they walk along
they try to come up with their back up plan,
who is going to be our leader when Jesus is gone?
Well, who is the greatest among us?
And I bet their argument went along the lines of Michael vs. LeBron,
where most had their minds already made up
and some placed higher value on teamwork,
while others admired brute force.
Jesus of course knows what they’re talking about
but he asks them anyway
and they’re embarrassed
because it’s pretty awkward to get caught talking about who is going to take over
after the one asking you the question is dead
and this is where Jesus sits down
- signaling that he’s going to start teaching again,
and teaches them the definition of greatest
according to Jesus’ way, according to God.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
and then like the good teacher that he is,
he gives them a concrete example,
he takes a child in his arms and tells them
“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Now this wasn’t like an ancient Lamb Time,
where there was a time set aside for the children to come up
and for everyone else to see how cute they were, aww.
Children, vulnerable and dependent on others for survival and protection
had no value socially,
they had nothing to offer in terms of honor or status.
Despite the varying definitions
the GOAT in that time would definitely have had lots of honor and status,
which you gained or lost based on who you associated with.
This is who Jesus tells the disciples to welcome,
the socially invisible,
and that by doing so they are welcoming God.
This is what it means to be the greatest Jesus says to his disciples,
climb down the social ladder,
welcome and care for those without status.
What motivates your actions matters,
when you welcome according to Jesus’ way
you are practicing welcoming
out of love of neighbor and God,
you are not welcoming because of what that person could do for you
but for who they are,
a person created by God.
The one who does this,
acts without regard for personal status on behalf of other,
this one is the greatest.
According to this definition
Jesus is the GOAT.
His teaching, his actions and even his very existence
overturn what it means to be the greatest of all time in the world.
Jesus, Son of God,
fully God became fully human,
immortality becoming mortal,
seeking out the least- the sick,
the poor, those without direction and certainly without status.
This is where God on earth can be found,
not among the most religious or the most righteous
but among the most sinful,
the ones most in need of forgiveness.
and for his troubles, for his love
Jesus will die,
he will be killed, for daring to forgive sins,
for loving people because they are children of God
and teaching others to do the same.
But his love is so strong it overcomes death,
on the third day Jesus rises again,
just as he said,
not because of what we can do for him
but because of who we are,
children of God.
All of us loved by the Greatest of All Time. Amen
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ
grace and peace to you from the one who is the messiah. Amen
There are a lot of tongues in our lessons for today.
Both Isaiah and James mention that small but important body part.
According to James
the tongue is a slippery creature (pun intended)
“with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
for such a small part of our body
the tongue wields disproportionate power,
like a rudder that steers a great ship
or a spark that sets a forest on fire
a word on our tongue has the power to build up or tear down.
James seems to find the tongue a mostly negative influence,
calling it a “restless untamable beast full of deadly poison”
James is concerned with the alignment of word and deed,
especially as it relates to Christians.
In the last couple of weeks in James
we’ve heard him call on believers to be doers of the word,
not just hearers
saying that faith without works is dead
now he’s turning it around,
just as what we do should reflect what we say we believe,
so should what we say
James is highly sensitive to hypocrisy
and to him it seems hypocritical
for someone to praise God in one breath
and in the next be horrible to another human,
one made in the image of God.
What we do and say matters,
because these actions reveal who we really are.
James says “Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?”
Trees are known by the fruit they produce,
and we will be known by what we produce,
it doesn’t matter if we call ourselves fig trees
if all we produce are olives.
It doesn’t matter if we call ourselves Christian
if we don’t say and do Christian things.
What we say matters because it reflects who we truly are.
And yes I’m am bold enough or foolish enough
to still believe and proclaim this
in an era where what people say
and how they say it
seems to matter less and less.
I maintain my belief that words are powerful
even more so when we don’t give them their due.
What we say matters.
Isaiah on the other hand
has a decidedly more positive take on the tongue.
In our first reading we hear the prophet proclaim
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
The prophet Isaiah has been sent to the people of Israel
living in exile in Babylon,
and removed from their home in the promised land,
all they have left are words,
the promise of God
that they will one-day return home.
God has appointed Isaiah to speak those words to the people
but the job of prophet is not simply speaking
but first listening to the word of God.
Isaiah praises God for the gift the teaching tongue
followed immediately by praise to God
for opening his ears each morning
to first listen to God.
and because Isaiah listens to God
he is able to stick to the job God has given him
even though he is mistreated because of his message,
the job of prophet is not only to sustain
but to point out the often uncomfortable truth,
the truth that people have more responsibility for their current misfortunes
than they’d like to admit
people who often get upset with the messenger
and go to extreme lengths to shut them up.
The life of a prophet is not easy
but because Isaiah is listening to God
rather than the people
he is able to be steadfast in his call
even proclaiming “the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;”
The shame that the people try to put on Isaiah doesn’t stick
because Isaiah is listening to God not the people.
Who we listen to matters.
Who we listen to,
even in the background,
forms our concept of the world and ourselves,
if we are not careful about who we listen to,
it will be the loudest often most negative voices
that shape our view of ourselves and the world.
Who we listen to matters.
The importance of all this speaking and listening
come to a head in our gospel for today
with Jesus questioning the disciples
“who do you say that I am?”
knowing that their answer
will reveal who they’ve been listening to,
who they’ve become.
The disciples have been with Jesus for a while now,
we’re about halfway through the gospel of Mark,
they’ve heard Jesus’ teachings,
seen him heal and do miraculous deeds.
Now Jesus takes his disciples of Caesarea Philippi,
and while this may seem like a minor detail
it tells us that Jesus is setting the scene.
You see Caesarea Philippi is an ancient place of idol worship,
a spring is located there in a cave
that, long before Jesus and his disciples wandered there,
was dedicated as a shrine to the Greek god Pan.
Later King Herod added Caesarea to the name of the place
to honor the Roman ruler Caesar.
Jesus takes his disciples
to a place where the prevailing culture
is shouting loudly,
the availability of other gods,
the bowing down to the Roman empire
and it is here he asks them two questions:
Who do people say that I am?
And Who do you say that I am?
What Jesus is asking the disciples with these questions is:
who have you been listening to?
And who are you because of what you’ve heard?
the disciples report what they’ve heard people say about Jesus,
John the Baptist, a prophet, Elijah,
figures out of the history of Israel
and when Jesus presses them for their answer
Peter opens his mouth-
he’s always the one speaking-
and he says “You are the messiah”
He gets the right answer.
And Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about him.
Why Jesus keeps telling the disciples
to keep his deeds and identity a secret is a mystery,
but it might have to do with what happens next.
When Jesus tells the disciples
what is going to happen to him,
the suffering, rejection, death
and after three days resurrection
Peter, who has just proclaimed Jesus the messiah
opens his big mouth again
and with the tongue that just uttered a blessing
rebukes him, tells Jesus he’s wrong.
What Jesus describes is not the messiah that Peter is thinking of,
the one for whom the Israelites are waiting is a King of the line of David,
who will come and throw out the oppressors
who have taken over the land of the Israelites
and bring them freedom to purify and restore Israel.
A dead messiah, no that’s not right Peter says
and Jesus turns and corrects him.
“Follow me, you’re upset because you’re listening to humans not God. you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Yes Jesus is the messiah,
but he’s not the messiah Peter or we want him to be.
We often talk about Jesus like he’s a magic genie,
someone who if we say the right thing will grant our wishes
solve our problems
and bring prosperity and freedom,
of course prosperity and freedom as defined by humans.
But if we listen to Jesus carefully
and watch what he does,
we find that what Jesus is most concerned with
is his quest to identify with the lowliest,
again and again he seeks out those outcast by society
and offers them what other humans have denied them,
healing, food, dignity
and for his troubles he will be rejected and killed.
This is the divine way.
And Jesus expects his disciples to follow the divine way.
what Jesus is saying when he talks of cross bearing
and losing and saving lives
is that if you are listening to God,
and you say that you follow God,
and you live your life according to the divine way,
you will get push back,
people will treat you like the prophet Isaiah,
but like the prophet Isaiah
you’ll be able to endure, stick with it,
because you’re listening to God
and not the people
and there is no shame in following the divine way,
it is the way of everlasting life with God.
Jesus knows that living in this way is extremely difficult,
that our sense of self-preservation will often overrule
our desire to follow God,
on the way to the cross Peter denies Jesus three times
and all the disciples abandon him,
Jesus knows that this will happen too,
and when he is raised up on the third day
who does he go to?
Because while the divine way is difficult,
it is also one of forgiveness,
and second chances.
No matter how many times we abandon him for ourselves
Use our tongues for both blessings and curses
Jesus will welcome us back
because Jesus is the messiah
according to the divine way. Amen
15th Sunday After Pentecost
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-23
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who sees us for who we really are and who still loves us. Amen
Today our lessons are about extremes.
On the one hand we have Jesus in our gospel
calling the Pharisees
who criticize his disciples for not washing their hands
They are so focused on human tradition
and what they do
that they’ve forgotten the meaning behind their actions.
Doing too much of the right thing
can become the wrong thing Jesus says,
and that comes from within our hearts,
not what we put into our bodies.
On the other hand,
we have James who proclaims
“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
and goes on to compare people
who hear but don’t act
to someone who briefly looks in a mirror
and immediately forgets what they saw.
Looking in the mirror doesn’t do much good
if you don’t remove the lump of spinach you see between your teeth.
James wants doers that act,
not hearers who forget
and warns “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”
You’re doing too much,
you’re doing too little
seemingly opposing messages
but when we look at them closer
we see they have a common denominator:
both are about what’s in your heart
and the importance of taking time
to examine what is in your heart, your intentions
because if you don’t
no matter what you do or do not do,
you’ll get into trouble.
What we have here is a message of law.
we tend to focus more on the gospel,
the good news
but remember we are a people of both/and,
we are saint and sinner at the same time
and we need both the law and the gospel
it’s just a matter of timing,
we need the gospel when we despair
and we need that law when we get cocky,
we are saved by God’s grace,
and we are flawed human beings,
which is why we need help to work on our flaws,
and that is where the law comes in
the law acts like a mirror
and if we don’t like what we see when we look at our reflections
then it’s time to make some changes
But the thing about the law
is that it doesn’t just reflect back
who we are on the surface,
the carefully cultivated public image
that minimizes flaws,
no the law reflects back who we are in our hearts,
from where, as Jesus remarks to the disciples “evil intentions come”
and he lists all sorts of evil intentions,
murder, slander, adultery, the usuals
but also pride and folly,
intentions that, if we are unaware of them
shade our actions and turn them on their heads.
The Pharisees to whom Jesus is speaking,
are faithful people,
they understand the law as a gift from God
- they’re not trying to earn salvation by following the law,
the law is a gift from God
that when lived out
acts as a witness to the other nations.
The intent behind living out the law
is to bring people together.
But the pharisees have become so focused
on the act of living out the law
that their efforts to live faithfully
have actually separated them from the people
for whom they are to be an example
it has separated them from their neighbors.
The pharisees are shocked by Jesus
because he has gone back to the original intent
and in Jesus’ way of doing things
reaching out to the neighbor
is more important than keeping clean,
if you follow Jesus,
you should expect to get your hands dirty in the service of others
And how we serve matters
It might seem like an obvious statement but
it’s important to listen to those we serve.
A couple of years ago
one of the officials of our partner synod in Tanzania
came and talked to the leaders at the fall theological conference,
and part of his message was that
“some of you are doing too much without listening to what we need.”
I believe he was referring to a couple of larger churches
who had partner relationships with Tanzanian congregations
and would help them financially
but would dictate what their financial help would go to
and this, the official said, was hurting the Tanzanian churches.
At some point
the help became less about the true needs of the Tanzanian church
and more about what the church in the states was doing
it was easier to sell people on say building a church in Africa,
which had tangible results
with glossy pictures
easily hung on a church bulletin board
or posted to a website as an example international mission,
that was more appealing than a general gift of money
that could be put towards the things the Tanzanian church needed most,
which might not have translated well into pictures
or measurable outcomes
but which would empower the recipients to do ministry
in their own place, in their own way.
We must examine the true intentions in our hearts when we act,
and yes even when we serve.
We have to ask ourselves,
is this really out of love of neighbor?
Or is this about us feeling good about doing something?
Who are we actually serving?
On the other hand,
if we say we believe something
our lives should reflect that belief.
I’ve seen a meme go around on the internet that says
“Sometimes the best evangelism is simply telling people you’re a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.”
We’re called to share this awesome life changing message with others,
it loses a little something when our own lives don’t reflect the awe of the gospel,
even a little bit.
Saying that we are Christian
does not give us the right to do whatever we want,
in fact it’s quite the opposite.
When we say we are Christian,
or followers of Jesus
or however else you like to put it
there has to be the intent backing up the words,
intent that acknowledges that it’s a difficult thing to follow Jesus,
it makes us uncomfortable at times,
it requires us to search our hearts before we act,
and it requires us to act on what we believe
to get our hands dirty,
to change the way we think and live.
learning to live in this way takes a lifetime.
A lifetime of hearing and doing and searching the heart,
a lifetime where sometimes we do too much
and sometimes we do too little
but wherever we are on our journey of faith we are not alone
Claimed by God at our baptisms
we are made members of a community,
a community who lives this life together,
who is there to point out when we’re going too far in one direction or the other,
a community that gathers to confess our sins to God
and receive forgiveness,
a community where Christ brings us to his table
to renew us with his body and blood,
then sends us back out into the world to live intentionally.
gathered in this community
take some time,
yes right now,
search your heart,
ask yourself some tough questions.
Then come to the table that Christ has prepared for you,
bread for the journey. Amen
Elisabeth Johnson's commentary on workingpreacher.org was of great help in composing this sermon
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.