Saturday, September 22, 2018

Year B, Pentecost 18, Mark 9.30-37, Unbounded Grace

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.  Amen
There’s something about Jesus that challenges us and everyone who has heard him speak and teach throughout the ages.
He is simply different.
He doesn’t conform to the ways of the world in which we live, and that makes us uncomfortable.
It makes us uncomfortable because not only doesn’t he do things the way the world expects, he doesn’t do things the way WE expect.
Elisabeth Johnson is an ELCA pastor and missionary serving in Cameroon and the writer of this week’s commentary in the “Working Preacher”.
She writes:
“In this narrative, Jesus arrives proclaiming that the reign of God has come near, calling for repentance, healing diseases and disabilities, and forgiving sins. Throughout his ministry, he associates with the last and the least in society -- Gentile women (Mark 7:24-30), bleeding women (Mark 5:24-34), lepers (Mark 1:40-45), raging demoniacs (Mark 5:1-20), tax collectors and other notorious “sinners” (Mark 1:13-17). He even welcomes and makes time for little children, much to the disciples’ consternation (Mark 10:13-16).”
“For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Here it is important to emphasize that Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins. Jesus dies because he associates with the impure and the worst of sinners. Jesus dies because the religious establishment cannot tolerate the radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives.”
“The radical grace of God that Jesus proclaims and lives completely obliterates the world’s notions of greatness based on status, wealth, achievement, etc. Perhaps that is one reason we resist grace so much. It is much more appealing to be great on the world’s terms than on Jesus’ terms. Greatness on Jesus’ terms means being humble, lowly, and vulnerable as a child. Greatness on Jesus’ terms is risky; it can even get a person killed. But as Jesus teaches repeatedly, his way of greatness is also the path of life.”
In our day we don’t spend much time worried about Gentile women, bleeding women, lepers, demoniacs, tax collectors, and other notorious sinners, nor for that matter do we view children in the way that they were viewed in Jesus day.
At that time, they simply had no status and were of little account.
That Jesus would put one such child before the disciples and instruct them that “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” was simply unheard of.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
That’s one of the questions we need to ask, if we would understand the implications of Jesus’ teaching, and who Jesus is.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
Race is one issue.
“White privilege is the fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.”
We don’t like to admit that it is so, but minorities simply do not have the same status in our society that white people have always enjoyed.
Some will argue that point, citing things such as affirmative action, and suggest that there are actually privileges afforded to those who are minorities.
But that our culture has tried to correct a wrong does not mean the wrong doesn’t exist.
As for myself, I have little experience with minority cultures.
I haven’t lived in predominantly black or Hispanic communities.  But I have seen firsthand the plight of Native Americans in this country.
Race simply is an issue regarding status in this country, still.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
Economic status and vocations (or lack thereof) are major indicators of the value we place on people.
Migrant workers.
Homeless people.
People on welfare.
People who are locked in minimum wage situations.
Blue collar as opposed to white collar.
We simply do not ‘afford’ the poor much status, in spite of God’s own concern for the poor in the Bible.
Who are the last and the least in our world?
Sexuality matters.
It matters if you are male or female.
It matters if you are gay or straight.
It even matters if you have been a victim of sexual abuse.   People who have come forward and spoken about having been abused or who have sought justice, have routinely been devalued and dismissed.
The stigma in our society associated with being a victim of abuse is so great that many will refuse to acknowledge that they have been abused, and in fact may not even recognize their abuse for decades.  I know, I am one such person.
Education matters.
Geography matters.
Citizenship matters.
It matters if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime, especially a sexual crime.
The point is that Jesus reached out to the outcast.  Those of little value.  Those so often overlooked, or even despised by the world.
And for that he was rejected.
As Dr. Johnson wrote:
“For all of this, he is condemned as an outlaw and blasphemer by the religious authorities, who decide that he is too dangerous and must be eliminated. Here it is important to emphasize that Jesus does not die in order for God to be gracious and to forgive sins. Jesus dies because he declares the forgiveness of sins.”
Why is it so important for us to recognize this about Jesus?
The answer to that question is simple.
If we do not understand the favor Jesus has shown to the least of these, we cannot comprehend grace.
Here I’ll just share a personal observation from my own experience.
There was a time when my status was that of being a young, highly educated, successful, white, married man with four children, and as such, an ideal pastoral candidate.  With that as my public image I was a viable candidate for almost any call in the church.
That status changed.
I am now an aging, bipolar person, a recovering alcoholic, and one who has faced many different struggles in my life, including being a victim of abuse.  When I share that I become vulnerable.
I become vulnerable because the world as a whole does not value those experiences.
The opportunities for me are now much more limited.
And it isn’t lost on me how gracious you have been as a congregation to welcome and accept me.  Not every congregation would.
And you know what?
Your acceptance of me has taught me a lot about grace, and God’s acceptance and forgiveness of me.
That’s what it means to be witnesses to the Gospel.
It means to live gracefully, condemning no one, and welcoming all.
That’s what Jesus did.
But it remains a struggle for us.
All of us, I think, value some people over others, and see certain people as simply being beyond the reach of grace, compassion, and understanding.
For me, the most difficult people of all to accept and forgive are people who abuse others, especially children—and this is because of my own experience of that.
I have had a person, one in particular that I remember, who confessed to having sexually abused a young child. 
As a pastor I am called to proclaim the forgiveness of sins.  To offer absolution for those who confess and seek God’s grace.
But this issue more than any else leaves me wanting to condemn such people for all eternity.  They are to me a notorious class of sinners.  And for them, I have a difficult time offering any word of forgiveness.
We state that our purpose as a congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community –
Well, for me, the difficulty with that would arise if a pedophile showed up.  Such a person is the lowest of low, in my estimation.
And yet, grace abounds.
It may be beyond my capacity to forgive a pedophile but it is not beyond God’s grace.
Nor is it beyond God’s grace to heal the wounds of one who has been abused.
Nor is it beyond God’s grace to lift up all who have been put down.
Nor is it beyond God’s grace to welcome the outcast, to value the worthless, and to forgive the unforgivable.
We welcome children, because in our day children are highly valued.  They are not the “least of these”.
But there are others that challenge our human standards.
I have tried over the years to forgive the man who abused me, and perhaps with God’s help I have.
The thing about recognizing that God can and will forgive, even him, is that it helps me to appreciate all the more that God can and will forgive me.
Does he deserve to be forgiven?
Probably not, but grace is not about deserving.
Do I deserve to be forgiven?
No, but I am.
That’s grace.

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