Sermons

Just Mercy

Just Mercy

“This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.” Amos 7:7

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 15, 2018 – 8B Pentecost

Our gospel lesson this morning is a lurid one, and if it weren’t in the Bible, I’m not sure it would be suitable for church. It is also a bit challenging to follow, so let me see if I can offer you a “Cliff’s Notes” version of what is going on:

Herod Antipas is the governor of Galilee and, more than anything, he wants to succeed his father as king, and spends much of his life chasing after this goal. Herod also craves women. Even though he is already married, Herod desires his brother Phillip’s wife, Herodias. Herodias shares these feelings and leaves her husband, Phillip, to marry Herod. The problem is that Phillip hasn’t agreed to divorce her.

Into this picture enters John the Baptist. Now, if we know one thing about John the Baptist, it is that he is slightly crazy. Remember this is the guy who appears at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, clothed in camel’s hair and wandering the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom, and pointing to Jesus. And a big part of John’s craziness – and the reason we call him a prophet – is his penchant for telling it like it is, calling people on their hypocrisy, and urging them to change their ways. So, when John the Baptist meets up with Herod and gets wind of his recent marriage to the already married Herodias, you can guess what happens: John tells Herod that he is an unfaithful polygamist, and for that John ends up in jail.

Herodias, however, is not satisfied with mere prison for John. She is livid at him for trying to undermine her marriage. But since Herod is the one with all the power, Herodias is forced to hatch a secret scheme to trick her husband into getting rid of John. And so she uses the pretext of Herod’s birthday party as the stage upon which to exact her vengeance.

Herodias coaxes her beautiful daughter, Salome, into providing entertainment at old Herod’s birthday banquet by doing an exotic and sexually charged dance to the great delight of Herod and all his buddies. Indeed, Herod’s lust becomes so whipped up by Salome’s seductive charms that he essentially pleas with her in front of all his friends: “Ask me for anything you want and I will give it, but please just keep dancing!”

And here is where Herodias lays her trap. She whispers into her daughter Salome’s ear: Ask him for the head of John the Baptist. And so she does. Now Herod is in a bind. He doesn’t want to execute John – for Herod secretly respects John – but he has publicly committed to granting Salome a wish, and a ruler has to keep his word or risk losing his claim to authority. He can’t appear to be weak. And so, Herod begrudgingly orders John’s execution. The depths of Herodias’ anger, however, are so deep that she not only wants John killed, but wants his head, so that she can mock him even in death.

It is quite a story, with a plot every bit the equal of a classical tragedy. It is a tale of the many ways in which power can corrupt the human soul: of how the powerful can be tempted to think they are above the moral law that guides the rest of us, of how ambition often blinds us to what is good and right, of how sex can be one more tool in our thirst for power over others, of how prone we are to deceive even those closest to us when it works to our advantage, and of how truly vicious we can become when others get in the way of our plans.

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Mister Rogers and the Perseverance of Love

Mister Rogers and the Perseverance of Love

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’” Mark 6:4

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 8, 2018 – 7B Pentecost

Here we are in the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel, well into Jesus’ public ministry, and after some pretty spectacular teaching and healing, one would think that the good people of Nazareth would be planning a ticker tape parade for their favorite son’s return home. How brokenhearted Jesus must be to hear, instead, the stinging words of rejection and disbelief in our gospel lesson today as he comes back to the neighborhood. All of us want acceptance and approval, especially from those closest to us. We want our family and friends to love us for who we are, who we have become, and for what we are doing with our lives. And to be scorned, rather than cheered, must have been isolating, even for Jesus.

The problem is not that the hometown folks fail to see what Jesus is doing. Mark tells us that they are indeed “astounded” by his teaching and recognize his wisdom. They can see the results; they are just unwilling to believe that the source of this power is some special relationship Jesus has with God. The hometown folks know a prophet when they see one, and this uneducated boy of questionable birth, who lacks both social standing and a respectable profession, is not the stuff of a prophet.

Jesus responds to this rejection with neither anger nor bitterness. Rather, he merely laments their unbelief, and recalls the truth of the ancient proverb that “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And then he gathers his disciples, and sends them out of Nazareth, two by two, in search of a more welcoming neighborhood for his teaching, even as Jesus warns them that they too may face a hostile audience in their travels.

It’s an odd story, isn’t it? A bit humiliating even. One wonders why Mark includes it in his gospel at all. Yet, in describing the scene, Mark even goes so far as to make the theologically scandalous assertion that “Jesus could do no deed of power there,” suggesting that Jesus’ ability to transform lives may somehow depend upon his audience’s willingness to believe. Christ, it seems, does not coerce people into faith, but patiently waits for hearts to turn.

Strange as it is, I think our gospel text this morning teaches some rather important lessons about perseverance, resilience, and grace in the face of adversity.

One of the ways that Pat and I escaped the heat of July 4th was to run off to the air-conditioned relief of the North Shore Mall to catch a movie. And while everyone else in America was flocking to the latest Jurassic Park installment, we instead went to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary about the life and work of Mister Rogers. It is a beautiful film, and as David Brooks wrote the other day in his New York Times column, the movie takes us back to some core truths about the moral life, about the Christian life, that are worth recovering.

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A Holy Interruption

A Holy Interruption

“’Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’” Mark 5:34

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

8B Pentecost – July 1, 2018

One of the important literary devices St. Mark uses in his gospel is called “a sandwich.” The fancy seminary word for the technique is “intercalation” – which means inserting one thing inside another – but I prefer “sandwich.” The way the sandwich technique works is that Mark starts telling one story, interrupts himself to tell another, and then goes back to finish the first, forcing his hearers to think about how the two stories may relate to one another.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mark starts out by telling a story about Jairus, a prominent rabbi in town, and his gravely ill, unnamed daughter. The narrative opens with Jairus rushing to Jesus, falling on his knees, begging Jesus to help his daughter. No sooner has Jairus made his plea, however, than his efforts are interrupted by an older, unnamed woman who is the focus of the second story. This poor woman has been plagued by hemorrhaging for 12 years, and every effort to cure her has failed. The bleeding woman literally barges in upon the scene to touch Jesus’ garment, hoping that it might help.

Jairus and the woman are a study in contrasts. As the town rabbi, Jairus is privileged, powerful, accepted, and male. The last thing we would expect of him is that he would fall upon his knees in the middle of town, begging this upstart rabbi, Jesus, for help. Yet, he is so distraught over his daughter’s illness, that he is moved to do whatever it takes to get Jesus’ attention.

By contrast, the bleeding woman is, within her culture, a nobody. Under Jewish law, her continuous bleeding makes her ritually unclean. It is scandalous for her to be out in public, let alone stalking a man she does not know. Moreover, she is poor, having spent what little she had on doctors, all to no avail. In short, as a single, diseased woman, she lives on the margins as someone vulnerable and powerless; and, in keeping with her status, she is given no name.

As the crowd looks on, all bets are that Jesus will take offense at this unclean woman grabbing on to him so presumptuously, that he will chastise her for her chutzpah, and that he will return his attention to Jairus, the one with social status and authority.

But that, of course, is not what Jesus does. He instead allows her touch, claims her as a “daughter,” praises her faithfulness, and heals her. Indeed, to the astonishment of the crowd, Jesus does all of this while the prominent rabbi’s daughter lapses into a coma next door and apparently dies.

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Out of the Whirlwind

Out of the Whirlwind

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. . . .” Job 38:1-11; 16-18

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

June 24, 2018 – 5 Pentecost

Why do bad things happen to good people? This is the central question at the heart of the classic biblical parable, the Book of Job.

I say ‘parable’ because like the Garden of Eden story from Genesis, which we read a few weeks ago, the Book of Job is not history and it is a category mistake to read it as such. It is part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. We do not know who authored the book, and even its date of composition is obscure: scholars place it somewhere between 500 and 700 years before Jesus’ day. Set in the mysterious land of Uz, which doesn’t appear on any ancient map, the book is named after its star, an unknown Gentile character named ‘Job’ with no known historical lineage.

As the great twelfth century rabbi, Maimonides, observed long ago, the Book of Job is a poetic tragi-comedy, grounded not in the historical reality of a single man and his family, but rather in the experience of all humanity, as each of us struggles to understand where God is in our suffering.

At the beginning of the drama, we meet Job, a rich and happy man. He enjoys all the ancient near Eastern markers of prosperity: seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred oxen, an equal number of donkeys, dozens of servants, along with a devoted wife and seven sons and three daughters. And, we are told, Job is widely regarded by his peers as a blameless and upright man.

But then the scene shifts to a chilling conversation in a heavenly court between a God-like figure and a fallen angel. Like a parent who is a little too proud of his upright son, God says to the satanic angel: “Did you notice my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him: a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and avoids evil.” The devilish angel is doubtful. He suggests to God that perhaps Job is such a good man only because he is so well off; if Job didn’t have all these riches, the accusing angel taunts, Job would turn on God in a second. Let’s put him to the test, the angel begs. So, God accepts the diabolical challenge, and the hellish drama begins: Job’s animals are stolen, his servants are killed, all of his children die in a desert storm, and then, to make matters really ugly, Job contracts leprosy and develops loathsome boils all over his body.

Needless to say, poor Job cannot fathom what has happened or why. His friends are convinced that Job must have some deep, dark sin in his past and that his current misery is punishment for this. They are persuaded that bad things happen only to bad people. As for Job’s wife, she quickly gets fed up with this reversal of fortune and urges Job to curse God and do himself in. But Job can’t bring himself to do that. Despite all his suffering, good old Job hangs on to his relationship with God and continues to trust.

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Planted in the Lord

Planted in the Lord

“Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God; They shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be green and succulent; That they may show how upright the Lord is, my Rock, in whom there is no fault.” Psalm 92:11-14

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

4B Pentecost – June 17, 2018

Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7, 1860, shortly before Abraham Lincoln was elected President. Born into a poor farming family in upstate New York, Anna was the third of ten children. As a child, she attended a one-room school house for only a few years, receiving no formal education after the age of ten.

By any measure, Anna had a hard life. When she was twelve, she started work as a house girl, doing chores, for a wealthy family who lived nearby. She worked as a domestic for various local families for the next 15 years.

When she was 27, Anna met a fellow by the name of Thomas Moses, one of the “hired hands” on the farm where she worked. Anna and Thomas were married soon thereafter, and moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where they spent the next several decades, living and working on various farms, wherever they could find work.

While they were in Virginia, Anna and Thomas decided to start their own family. Over the next decade, Anna bore ten children, but tragically only five of the ten survived infancy. Even so, Anna and Thomas persevered, and continued to live simple, hard-working, and unremarkable lives for the next several decades, until Thomas died of a heart attack in 1927 at the age of 67.

Anna never married again, and eventually moved in with one of her daughters in 1936, where she did what she could to help around the house, and pursued her interest in needlepoint in her spare time.

For most poor American farming folk of her generation, this more or less would be the end of the story. But not for Anna. Though she was not a churchgoing type, Anna was raised in the Methodist tradition and was very much shaped by the Puritan ethos of her generation. She believed in hard work, purposeful living, and putting to full use all of the God-given talents she had been granted. She loathed wasting anything, and was determined to continue making a contribution with her life, however small, until God decided she was done.

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Where are you?

Where are you?

“The Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” Genesis 3:9

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

3 Pentecost 2018 — June 10, 2018

One of my theological heroes since my college days is the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. I wrote my senior honors thesis on him, and I still rely on Barth’s writings for insight and inspiration. Most professional theologians will tell you that Barth is arguably the most important Protestant theologian since Luther and Calvin. And it is not just Barth’s writings that make him important, but his public witness too: along with another hero of mine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barth was an early and outspoken leader of the Christian resistance to Adolf Hitler in the 20s, 30s, and 40s.

For all his theological acumen, Barth could also be disarmingly simple. When a reporter asked Barth, near the end of his life, how he might summarize his vast theological writings, he simply began to sing: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so ….” As a reminder of his influence on me, I keep this little pillow in my office with Barth’s picture on it, his ubiquitous pipe in hand. And as you may be able to see, the caption on the pillow reads: “The answer is Jesus. Now what’s the question?”

Against this background, you can probably imagine how my heart sank when, a few years ago, I started reading Eberhard Busch’s classic biography of Barth, only to learn that throughout most of his professional life, Barth maintained a forty-year affair with his long-time secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, which his devoted wife, Nelly, knew about, and was forced simply to tolerate. It was one of those morally obnoxious “accommodations” that powerful men throughout history have often been able to demand. Even now, it pains me to acknowledge this sad truth publicly, because I so want my heroes to live virtuous lives that match the profundity of their work.

It seems that everywhere you go these days, we see a similar pattern of heroes falling from grace because of some dark secret or other. Political leaders, artists, sports figures, television celebrities, the list goes on. And so we wonder: are there any people of integrity left anymore?

While this may seem to be a problem of our times, the truth is that people have always been deeply flawed creatures. In years past, reporters and writers were just more willing to adhere to a code of silence out of respect for the privacy of public figures. I hate to say it, but if you have a hero whom you believe to be an entirely pure paragon of virtue, I suspect it is only because you haven’t probed quite deeply enough.

In our faith tradition, of course, we call this reality sin, and it plagues us all. We are broken people. And, the story of the Garden of Eden, a small excerpt of which we heard in our first lesson, is the classic text for understanding this truth about ourselves:

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