READINGS: 10/10/2021 ~ Twenty-eight Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost ~ (Proper 23) ~ Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31 ~ VIDEO OF THE COMPLETE SERVICE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB8t8SQPzQ0.
It’s Not the Particulars!
“You know the commandments: ‘No killing; no committing adultery; no stealing; no bearing false witness; no defrauding; Honor your father and mother.’” — Mark 10:19.
When I was over in the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ I served as a pastor at a church in the Susquehanna Association. Located in central New York, the Association’s size is daunting. It has only 27 churches but it is the size of State of Connecticut— 27 churches as big as Connecticut.
Over time in Susquehanna I was a member then chair of the Church and Ministry Committee, vice Moderator, Moderator, Immediate Past Moderator of the Association. In those offices I traveled all over that Association… a lot.
When traveling in a car alone some people listen music. Some listen to a book. I listen to academic lectures, often lectures on history. I know— history: boring!!! Well, boring for most people. Not for me.
Why history? I have often said to be a good theologian you need to be a good historian. Christianity is steeped in, even based in history.
Our claim as Christians is Jesus was real, lived in history, at a specific time, in a specific place. Our claim as Christians is God has been present from before creation throughout all time. With the advent of the Christ, God is identifiably present in the world, our world, here, now, with us. (Slight pause.)
Well, it seems to me when I study history I always find out something I never knew before. In one lecture I discovered, despite the title of the famous book by Gibbon The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that the Empire neither declined nor did it fall.
Things changed but in the time described as decline and fall by Gibbon the Roman Empire remained quite intact. In that era Rome was led by two competent emperors— Diocletian and Constantine.
They were competent because they foresaw, they anticipated, identified change in the Empire. They dealt with those changes and made structural adjustments in how Rome was governed as they happened, as the changes happened they made adjustments.
Anticipating and identifying what will happen and what is happening is important. Why? Instead of getting tied up in details, concentrating only on right now, competent leadership looks at the larger picture. Seeing the larger picture includes foresight.
And so the Roman Empire did not decline. It simply changed, constantly changed. Of course, everything changes constantly. It’s a lesson we can and should learn from history. (Slight pause.)
These words are in Mark. “You know the commandments: ‘No killing; no committing adultery; no stealing; no bearing false witness; no defrauding; Honor your father and mother.’” (Slight pause.)
There are at least three conversations in this reading. Commentaries suggest the writer of Mark meant them to be seen as one and that insight could be a key to understanding the thrust of the whole passage.
But first, we need to grapple with the idea that what is said to the rich person is not meant as a call to abandon the world. Neither is it a suggestion the rich person become a wandering mendicant, a beggar.
And yes, the disciples left all to follow Jesus but their future is described as ample. So we need to grapple with the idea that, we, the church of our era, cannot flee the arena known as the world, the time and place in history in which we are called to serve and to live.
Further, the rich person and the disciples keep the commandments. So we need to also grapple with the idea that keeping the commandments is not enough. Why? The commandments are just details, particulars. We need to look at the larger picture.
Hence, this question needs to be addressed: what does the world look like, the world now look like, really? And how do we, how should we respond to the world now, really? (Slight pause.)
There are at least two answers here. First, yes the world looks like it is broken, really. If you think that’s not true, please listen to the news. What are we going to do about that?
Second, things change constantly. The world changes constantly, really. If you think that’s not true, please listen to the news. What are we going to do about that?
Well, this is what history suggests to me: the details do not matter as much as seeing the entire picture, envisioning, foreseeing the larger picture. This is an imperative.
Put in a more colloquial way, do we pay too much attention to the tree, we miss the fact that a forest stands in front of us? That forest, that collection of trees, the systems in the world around us, are waiting to be identified and inviting us to grapple with them.
Let me put that trees/forest concept another way. In my Church History Survey course the professor was painfully aware since we were covering 2,000 years of history students needed to keep up with the reading. Fall a week behind, it’s hard to catch up.
So each week in class there was a 10 question short answer quiz. The professor was generous. The tests were only 5% of the grade.
Further, each week one of four answers on one question was always “Sir John Free-be.” Check that box with the answer “Sir John Freebe” and get at least 10% on each quiz without doing the reading.
This same teacher also said the importance of facts is to give context. But it is much more important to know and understand the broad sweep of history, the big picture.
Knowing Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 is not as important as knowing the voyages of that era are about the start of a new economic system called capitalism. The facts— the tree— that’s Columbus. The broad sweep— the forest— that’s economic systems. Which is more important— knowing about Columbus or about economic systems?
So what is a larger picture in Christianity? Our Christian forest is not about specific rules. Our Christian forest is about how we live our lives. Living within the rules is good. Living out from the rules— living out from the rules— is our calling.
Put another way, Scripture constantly asks: where is our heart? And perhaps that is exactly the interaction Jesus is having with the rich person. Jesus is asking where is your heart? (Slight pause.)
Have you ever considered this: loving one another is not a rule. Why? A rule is static, immoveable, a noun. Love is an action, a motion, a verb.
That actually brings up another question about anticipation and identification. What is the purpose of this Church? That’s a question with which this church has been grappling and will grapple. It’s also a question with which any church should never stop grappling.
But in order to faithfully grapple with this question foresight and sight— anticipation and identification are necessities. These have nothing to do with the programs we have, who the pastor is, even who the leadership is.
Each of us, each individual, needs to faithfully grapple with the question ‘what is the purpose of this church?’ And one way to work out that purpose might be that we all need to learn something from history.
What does history teach? Static, immoveable does not work. Action, motion does work. Change is not easy. It is inevitable. Success is not a goal. Being faithful is.
So let me make one suggestion as to what being faithful might entail. Maintaining faithfulness means living out from the rules, living out from what the reality of now says into the reality of what can be. That means seeing the big picture.
What is the big picture? The big picture is seeing, identifying the way of life to which God calls us.
And that, my friends, suggests yet another step, a really, really big step. We— all of us together— need to trust God— God who is faithful— we need to trust God to guide us. Amen.
South Freeport Congregational Church United Church of Christ, South Freeport, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This is a quote from a Jesuit, Greg Boyle. ‘We are not invited to an allegiance to a system of beliefs but to a way of living, a way of loving, a vision where we take seriously what Jesus took seriously— inclusion, non-violence, unconditional loving kindness, compassionate acceptance.’ Or as I indicated in my comments, the commandments are merely the particulars. Our calling is not to live within the commandments but to live out from the commandments.”
BENEDICTION: The Word of God guides us and assures us of God’s saving grace, God’s healing love, God’s eternal promises. May the face of God shine upon us; may the peace of Christ rule among us; may the fire of the Spirit burn within us this day and forevermore. Amen.