3 Shades of Grace: Justifying Grace

Three Shades of GraceRead the Introduction to this series here.

Read about prevenient grace here.

“Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and God will give you more grace.” (John Wesley)

Through prevenient grace we are made aware of our sinfulness and our need for divine grace. Along with that awareness comes an invitation which we can choose to respond to or not. When we do respond to the invitation, we experience the second shade, or movement, of grace: justifying grace.

Justifying grace pardons us of our sins and makes us right with God. Again, God acts. This time through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is because of what God did through Jesus out of a great love for us that we have this amazing grace. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is considered the ground of justification. It is the basis or foundation of our salvation.

Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved gift given to us. Theologian Randy Maddox refers to grace in the Wesleyan understanding as responsible grace. What he means by that is that God’s grace gives us the ability to respond. Faith is the response on our part to that gift of grace. To claim faith is to do two things: repent and believe. John the Baptist began his ministry with just such a call to repentance and believing. Jesus summarizes the gospel in this way, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark 1:15).  Paul, throughout Acts and his epistles, preached a similar message.

In the New Testament, which was written in Greek, the word for repent means “to turn around.” In other words, we make a U-Turn, we change the direction we are headed in. John Wesley called repentance, “a change of heart from all sin to all holiness.” All sin is lack of acknowledgement of and separation from God, while all holiness is being fully aware and fully acknowledging God.

The younger son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 provides a good example of what repenting change looks like. In the parable, the younger son leaves his father, claiming his inheritance early. He parties it away and ends up with a job feeding pigs more food than he can afford. This experience led to a new self-understanding for the son, which lead to a conviction that what he had sinned and he should return home.

When we repent, the change we undergo involves a new self-understanding of who we are as sinners and the need for us to return home. This is what it means to make a U-Turn back to God.

While repenting is the first act, belief is the second act. Belief is more than memorizing scripture and reciting creeds. Belief is putting and having full trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness. John Wesley wrote, “To believe in God implies, to trust in him as our strength, without whom we can do nothing . . . . as our help, our only help in time of trouble.” Our minds understand that Christ died for our sins, and our hearts commit to living in Christ.

sixthsenseWesley would save that once we claim the gift of faith, we gain a sixth sense. And not the “I see dead people,” sixth sense. Our eyes are opened and we see the world differently. We are awakened to a spiritual reality, and we see ourselves, others, and the world through that reality. This awakening leads us to respond to faith by doing good. We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we visit the sick, we love as Christ has loved us.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline says this about faith and works:

Both faith and good works belong within all all-encompassing theology of grace, since they stem from God’s gracious love “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

Of course, this does not mean that we will never sin again. Justification cancels sin. When we repent we turn back to God and accept the gift of faith. In justification, we still have the chance to respond. Too often Christians think that salvation is sealed in a single moment. Wesley would add that in that moment we begin a journey. This process of being cleansed and freed from sin is called sanctification. We will look at sanctifying grace in the next post.

 

 

Easter Feet

Easter Ponderings“But, go, tell his disciples, and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7)

A few weeks ago my friend Jennifer posted on Facebook a quote from her daughter. The three year old had placed two Easter eggs on her feet and declared, “Look, Mommy! I have Easter feet!”

So adorable and innocent. And theological.

Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb, in Mark’s Gospel, are commissioned to go and tell the others that the Christ is Risen, Risen Indeed! The command to go and tell is not unlike other times in the Gospels when the followers of Christ are told to go and tell. After Jesus had healed lepers in Luke 7, he tells the followers to go and tell John the Baptist about the things they had seen. Mark and Matthew record Jesus telling the disciples and go and tell (preach) the good news.

Go and tell.

That is what it means to have Easter Feet. To walk or run with our Easter Feet is to go and tell. Mary and the other women were a sent people with a mission.

We, too, are people who are sent. We are sent out beyond the boundaries of our church walls to share the gospel message – a message filled with love, grace, and hope. The church is an important and vital place for the believer. Christians gather together at the church on Sundays and throughout the week for worship, studying the scriptures, prayer, and participation in the sacraments. Then, followers of Christ are sent to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, to love others as Christ has loved them.

We gather with other people of faith to engage in works of piety so that we can be sent to engage in works of mercy.

We are sent out on our Easter Feet.

The mission of the sent is to continue the work of making God and God’s ways known to the world. In this sense, the world needs the Church. It is through the Church that the world responds to Christ in faith and accepts the grace that has been given to the world. All of this is made possible by and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But, there are days when it is not easy to walk on Easter Feet. There are days when it would be so easy to act like all those other people who are rude and just plain mean. We are assaulted by this meanness at work, at school, in our communities and yes, even in our churches.

Recently, a minister in town attended a children’s ministry event at our church. He took issue with the children’s moment that we had, where we shared the Easter story. About 80% of the children were not part of our church, and were 3 and 4-year-olds. The children’s moment presented the story using language that was age appropriate and focused on the meaning of Easter – a risen Jesus!

This visiting pastor, who was present with his children, took to Facebook to share three or four theological points that he considered were left out of this outreach event. He did not come to talk to any of the clergy. He did not write an email. He did not place a phone call. He took to Facebook and shared very publicly that our church was leaving out the truth of the Gospel. Some members who knew him took him to task for his actions. He later edited his Facebook post deleting the rude statement and replacing it with scripture. The meaning, however, was the same.

There are times when people will assault us with meanness and they think they are doing the right thing. They think they are being faithful to their God. They use their Bibles, quoting scripture to put others down.

Friends, this is not what it means to stand on Easter Feet. 

We can stand on Easter Feet and be in dialogue with those that we disagree with. We can stand on Easter Feet and walk in grace, showing the grace that Christ extended to us to others. We can stand on Easter Feet and use the word of God to build up instead of tear down.

Jesus did not say, “Go and tell others all the ways in which they are wrong.” Jesus said, “Go and tell that I have risen!”

How are you walking on Easter Feet?

 

The Ten: Remember the Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you.Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11, Common English Bible)

The Ten - jasoncstanley.comWe are taught that after God created, God rested. As such, we should do the same. But this command goes beyond what we have been taught in Sunday School. The Christian tradition of Sabbath included closed businesses and attending worship. Many of the people in our pews remember the days when Sabbath was more than just a “church” thing. It was the cultural norm.

However, today, it is not. In our age, it seems that it is more difficult to carve out Sabbath. While it is difficult, it is necessary. To “remember,” as the commandment says, is more than a Lumosity exercise. To remember the Sabbath requires action. The observation of the Sabbath is an active one. It is something we do for our health as well as to honor our God.

Built into creation is sabbath. Just like the air we breathe, sabbath is apart of God’s creation. The level of which we keep sabbath will not determine the level of salvation we receive. No, sabbath is apart of creation. Scholar Terence Fretheim writes that “the divine rest ‘finished’ the creation,” and as such, “Only when that rhythm is honored by all is the creation what God intended it to be.”

On the seventh day, God rested. On the seventh day (which ever day that is for you), we rest to admire God’s creation. We rest in honor of God’s creation. We rest in respect of God’s creation.

Sabbath – holy rest – is as one scholar has written, “a sanctuary of time.” The Gospel of Mark gives something to ponder when it comes to Sabbath:

The sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the sabbath. (Mark 2:27)

The context of this statement by Jesus is when Jesus picks grain on the sabbath and he is called to task for it. This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last time Jesus is called out for doing something on the sabbath. Jesus places the emphasis on human need. If there was a person dying from hunger on the sabbath, you wouldn’t ignore them, would you? John Wesley, in his Notes on the New Testament, wrote that sabbath law “must give way to man’s necessity” because the sabbath was created for humanity in the first place.

A strict following of the sabbath is not rest either. The Pharisees who call Jesus out for working on the sabbath, are themselves working on the sabbath. They are the keepers of the law – it is their vocation and occupation – it is their job to uphold the law. And like so many of us today, they added more work to their plate by interpreting the law with “If . . .then . . .” situations. We could dare say that they missed the point.

But it is something we have to be intentional about. Sabbath may have been made for humanity, but it is a gift that has to be opened.

How do you remember the Sabbath?

Follow Friday: Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I first met Andrew Taylor-Troutman in a seminary classroom. We were both students at Union-PSCE, now Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. I have this image of Andrew sitting in the chapel in Watts as I preached (if you want to call it that) during a chapel service. The Central America travel seminar group was leading worship one week, sharing about the experiences from the trip. I was sharing about our week in Costa Rica and how we experienced God.

That image of Andrew sitting in the old pew listening intently to what was being said and shared, pondering in his heart these things, has stuck with me through the years. Andrew ponders. And his pondering has led to writing beyond a blog. Andrew has two books published sharing his ponderings, Take My Hand, and most recently Parables of Parenthood. Andrew’s published works are both connected to his vocation as a pastor.

Writing Beginnings

Andrew started journaling while in college, but started writing five to six days a week while in seminary as a spiritual discipline. He says:

I used to wake up early just to write! I found that there was a great convergence between my classes, which I wanted to articulate but wasn’t really appropriate for assigned papers. So I needed to carver out some extra time.

Andrew attended a travel seminar in 2008 to Ghana. One of the requirements of the seminar was to submit a journal. While he thought what he turned in was the typical, customary musings of a seminary student, the reaction from Andrew’s professors was extraordinary. “They were extremely impressed,” he recalls, “I wasn’t really thinking about publishing then, but their support did leave an impression on me.”

After seminary, Andrew entered a graduate program at the University of Virginia. After that, he felt a call to parish ministry. During this time, serving a local church, he resumed his journaling. He was no longer writing papers for professors and it served as an outlet to process all the experiences his ministry was providing him. “Which,” Andrew says, “I might term a collision between my head and heart, my graduate study and new found relationships with laity.”

On Being Published

He goes on to say:
Re-reading my journals, I began to notice that my musings were connected with my Sunday sermons. In other words, my reflections on the events of Monday through Saturday were informing my work on Sunday in conversation with the biblical texts. This is the idea behind Take My Hand. I was fortunate that the publisher, Wipf & Stock, happened to be looking for practical theology.

Parables of Parenthood

Andrew has a new book out titled Parables of Parenthood. This began when the Wednesday morning
Bible study group at New Dublin Presbyterian asked him to teach the parables.
Andrew agreed, and he was soon intrigued by the parables contained in more than one Gospel. “In certain cases,” he states, “Matthew, Mark, and Luke received a teaching of Jesus that had been transmitted from mouth-to-mouth and recorded it in such a way as to directly address their current audience.” Because the Gospel writers were writing to different audiences, this accounts for the differences we may see in the Gospels. And in some cases, the slighter the difference, the more profound it can be.
Armed with this analysis, Andrew began to think about how the lessons he would be teaching impact his own life as a first-time father.
Parables of Parenthood is really a Bible study, written in accessible language for a wide audience, that is explained in part by anecdotes from my family life, kind of like sermon illustrations.
Andrew has shared excerpts from his new book on his blog.

On Writing

Andrew still tries to write every day, even if it is just a little. He recalls how his seminary professor Carson Brisson told hims about his older son, a collegiate swimmer, who would swim what appeared to be lazy laps over his Christmas break. When questioned by his father, the son responded that he was trying to get a “feel for the water.” “I try to do that with words,” Andrew says.
This getting a “feel for the words,” includes editing, going over and over a piece until it “sounds” or “feels” right to him. Andrew tends to write by intuition. In other words, he doesn’t know that something is inside of him until he gets it out.
The American poet Wallace Stevens is known for saying that everyone is waiting for the lightning to fall, but while you wait, wait writing. These words speak to Andrew. “Writing is a mysterious process to me,” he says, “but I am crystal-clear that it takes hard work and daily commitment.”
Andrew will be the Peakland Academy guest speaker, presenting on Parables of Parenthood at Peakland United Methodist on Monday, March 10, 2014 starting at 6pm. 

Vision to Change

A sermon on Job 42:1-6; 10-17 and Mark 10:46-52 preached Sunday, October 28, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church.

It had become a tradition in the last church I was at to host the homeless for two weeks in November through a ministry called CARITAS in Richmond. The whole church was transformed into a homeless shelter. Thanksgiving day always fell during this time and we started holding a worship service on Thanksgiving with our guests.

Last year in the worship service we sang the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second verse of the hymn says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I come.”  I had a bowl of water set out with small stones in the bottom. I explained that an Ebenezer was a stone of help and it was often used in the Old Testament to monument where God had helped the people, such as in 1Samuel 7:12.

I invited those worshiping to come up and to remember their baptism – the waters of grace -as they plunged their hand into the water to get an Ebenezer. I told them to hang on to their Ebenezer and let it remind them that God is with them; God is their help in trouble; and God will set them free. I remember saying, “Let this Ebenezer, that was drenched in the waters of grace, represent for you a new beginning.”

Bartimaeus was in need of a new beginning. Mark does not tell us how long Bartimaeus begged on this corner just outside Jericho. But we can imagine that it was probably a long time. He was a blind man, a man of the street, an outsider. And as such, it wasn’t like he had a lot of chances. Day by day he laid his cloak out on the street and chatted up any passerby for the hopes of a few coins.

N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a New Testament scholar and has been named one of the top five theologians of our time. Thinking about Bartimaeus, Wright tells the story how how an adult son tried desperately to get his ailing and depressed mother into a home where she would be cared for.  His own life was being swamped by her needs and demands, and he didn’t  have much of  a private life.  The son came to Wright for assistance.  They looked at several options, including nursing homes, sheltered housing, communities of all sizes.  But the mother didn’t budge.  There was always something wrong with one of the facilities.  After about an hour or so, Wright reports, of looking at different homes, the mother turns to her son and with victory in her eyes says, “See, I told you he (Bishop Wright) couldn’t do anything for us.”

The truth is Bishop Wright was helping them. But the mother wasn’t ready for change.  She wasn’t willing to see the potential in the different homes and facilities they visited.  She wasn’t ready to help herself.

Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus in Mark is a very different encounter than we usually see from Jesus in a healing narrative.  Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” is really Jesus asking, as Wright points out, “Are you, Bartimaues, ready to give up begging?” “Are you ready for a new beginning?” “Are you ready to make a change?”

Maybe Jesus is asking us the same question: Are you ready for a new beginning in your life?  Are you  ready to make a change? Or, Jesus could be asking that question to us the Church? Are we the Church ready for a new beginning? Are we the Church ready to make a change?

Change happens.  It was built into the very fiber of creation, and (somewhat ironically) it is built in the very fiber of the Church.   Just as the crowd shouted at Bartimaeus to be quiet, we are distracted by the voices yelling at us whenever we speak or think of change.  Voices of consumerism.  Voices of power and popularity.  Voices of influence.

With so many voices trying to get our attention it can be difficult to see things the way they are.  Our vision becomes cloudy at best.  It becomes difficult to see the pain and hurting around us – maybe even in the same pew.  It becomes difficult to see the suffering in our community.  And sometimes the loudest voice of all is our own voice, shouting that things are fine the way they are; shouting that if so-and-so hadn’t done us wrong, it wouldn’t be this way; shouting that someone else can do it.

And with all this shouting, it becomes difficult to see as God sees.

So, how can we improve our vision?  What does a spiritual eye exam look like? Before Bartimaeus ever asks to be healed of his blindness, he yells out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This is an unexpected messianic greeting.  On the outskirts of Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, by a blind begger.  The irony is not lost on Mark.  As we have discussed in our Mark Bible study this fall, Mark draws a direct connection between “seeing” and “knowing.”  The contrast that Mark draws is that those who have seen, like the disciples, still struggle with knowing, while those who cannot see, like Bartimaeus, know and understand.  Despite his blindness, Bartimaeus has vision and knows when he hears that Jesus is coming down the street, that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who can save, the one who can forgive.

We’ve been reading parts of Job’s story the last few weeks, and if you have never read Job I encourage you to take a look, its one of the greatest books. Chapter 42 is the last chapter, bringing the saga to a close.  In the verses we read this morning, the turning point is in verse 6.  Different Bibles have different translations ranging from “I repent” to “I humble myself” to “I submit.”  Did the sight of God and the weight of God’s words humble Job, or did Job just decide it was better to give in and go on with life?  When we face troubles in our lives or the life of the Church, do we humble ourselves before God, or do we mime the motions and thought processes of humility to somehow muddle our way through while mutely maintaining that we have been wronged?

Job, like Bartimaeus, seeks mercy from the Lord.  When we seek mercy, forgiveness, it is not about who is right or who is wrong.  Those things don’t matter anymore.  Both Job and Bartimaues serve as a model for us as to what it means to humble ourselves in a way that says we are ready.  Repenting, humbling yourself, or submitting to God, means that you are turning away from the things that have separated you or distracted you from God in the first place.  It’s turning away from the voices that demand our attention elsewhere, and putting our full attention on God.

Jacob Albright was a preacher in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.   After several of his children died, Albright went through a bit of a religious crisis.  A new beginning was needed.  He attended a Methodist class meeting (what we would call a small group) that met in a home and through that experience felt called to preach to the German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania.  In 1790 he converted to Methodism and would later be the founder of the Evangelical Association, one of the denominations that would later become The United Methodist Church.  It was through the small group ministry that was so essential to early Methodists, that Albright gained sight for change in his life.

In the Christian Church, today is Reformation Sunday.  Martin Luther, the German monk, was filled with remorse over the direction the Church was headed.  He compiled a list – The 95 Theses – of ways in which the Church needed to be reformed.  In 1517 he nailed this list to the doors of the church.  Though the Roman Catholic church would excommunicate him and he would be named an outlaw by the Emperor, Luther would start the Reformation, which would lead to Protestant denominations like Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists.  Luther had gained sight for change in the church and ignored the voices yelling at him to not take a stand, to do so.

Albright gained sight and vision to change his spiritual life.  Luther gained sight and vision to change his church.  Understanding what we really need is necessary for change.  If Bartimaeus was not ready to put an end to his life on the street, than seeking change was not going to be beneficial.  When Jesus asked him What do you want me to do for you?, Bartimaeus could have asked for money, a warm meal, or even a place to stay.

People in need have been conditioned to ask for things that will alleviate, but not eliminate their troubles.  This is at the heart of the United Methodist Church’s emphasis on ministry with the poor verses ministry to the poor.  Bartimaeus’ request of Jesus was to eliminate his trouble, and he could ask this because he was ready to take that step, to make that stand, to seek change.

This past Mother’s Day, Megan and I went with my mom and another family to serve a meal at Freedom House’s Community Shelter in Richmond.  The Community Shelter offers more than just shelter and food to the 40 residents.  The program is open to those homeless individuals who show signs of readiness for change in their lives and prepares them for that change during the 12-month program.

As we gathered to offer a blessing before the meal, there was an African-American woman that looked very familiar to me.  But I could not place her.  After a few minutes of trying to figure it out, I let it go and we served the meal and ate with the residents.

When the dining area had cleared out and us volunteers were starting to clean up, the woman came back into the dining space.  She hesitated for a moment, and then looked at me and said, “I know you.  You’re from that church in Hanover.  You gave my my Ebenezer.”  As soon as she said this, it finally clicked with me.  She was a part of CARITAS and was living in our church for two weeks and was at the Thanksgiving day worship service.  When I acknowledged that I remembered her, her face lit up as she remembered that day and she began to dance right there in the kitchen.

She even pulled her Ebenezer stone out of her pocket to show it to me.  It had become for her a symbol for her readiness to change her life and her vision for a new beginning.

It is time for us to do the same.  It is time for us to recognize our need.  It is time for us to humble ourselves before Christ.  It is time for us to change.  Amen.

Pursue Justice. Pursue Love.: A Sermon

A sermon preached Sunday, October 14, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church. Some illustrations were provided in a Children’s Sabbath resource provided by United Methodist Family Services.

Scripture readings: Job 23:1-9; 16-17 and Mark 10:17-27

It was a Sunday morning, but something seemed different. As Erin drove to church, she noticed that the roads were more crowded than they normally were. And then she saw it. Instead of an abandoned parking lot at the Toys-R-Us like it was every other Sunday morning, the parking lot was full!

It looked like hundreds of children and their parents wrapped around the building and lined up in anticipation of something – a new Elmo toy, perhaps. Erin couldn’t help but think, “WOW.” All of these families lined up outside of a toy store just to get the newest toy.

As I reflected on Erin’s experience, I found myself thinking of all the children in our community who will never have that experience. Children who struggle to get by each day and who don’t know what the next day will bring. These children are not lined up outside of a Toys-R-Us waiting to take advantage of a sale or release of a new toy on a Sunday morning.

Take Renee for example. Renee is a client at United Methodist Family Services and she doesn’t consider herself anyone’s child. She is a ward of the state. Renee’s biological mother was 17 when Renee was born and living in poverty. Her troubled life involved convictions for theft, cocaine possession, and carrying a concealed weapon. After her mother was arrested for forgery, 7-year-old Renee was scooped up by a social worker and placed in the foster care system. Renee is not waiting outside Toys-R-Us to buy the latest and greatest toy on sale.

Renee is waiting for a forever family who will love and care for her.

Erin’s experience at Toys-R-Us and Renee’s story leaves me wondering, what is it that we the church are seeking for children? Are we seeking and pursuing justice and love for all children? Or are we focusing so much on teaching what we think Christians should believe while neglecting to show how Christians should live by actively pursuing justice?

Job doesn’t quite ask it this way in our Old Testament reading this morning, but he gets there. Job is the Biblical example of what it means to suffer. God and Satan set a bet on the table to see if Job would curse God or not if Job was no longer under God’s protection. God removes his protection from Job and Job loses everything. He loses the family farm, his children die, his wife leaves him because she can’t handle it anymore. His friends try to help, but all they offer are ways in which Job caused this suffering on himself. The verses we read this morning are often looked at by scholars as Job’s complaint to God. Complaint often has a negative tone to it. But challenge your thinking on that. Job is complaining because there is no sense of justice. Job feels that it is not right that he should suffer in the ways in which he has suffered.

Shane Claiborne, a well-known Christian author and speaker, who defines himself as an “ordinary radical,” describes his own experience as a youth growing up in the United Methodist Church this way:

I began to wonder if anybody still believed Jesus meant the things he said. Jesus was crazy enough to suggest that if you want to become the greatest, you should become the least. Jesus declared God’s blessing on the poor rather than the rich and insisted it wasn’t enough to love just your friends. I thought that if we really lived like Jesus taught, it would turn the world upside down and that it was a shame Christians had become so normal. I learned in Confirmation class about the fiery beginnings of the Methodist Church, but where had the fire gone? I learned about John Wesley who said that if they didn’t kick him out of town after he spoke, he wondered if he had really preached the Gospel. Then I watched as the congregation built a $120,000 stained glass window. Wesley would not have been happy. I stared at that window. I longed for Jesus to break out of it, to free himself, to come to rise from the dead . . .again.

Claiborne’s words remind me of the story of two old men talking to each other and one of them says he has a question for God. He wants to know why God allows such injustices, poverty, suffering, and hunger to exist in the world. His friend says, “Well, why don’t you ask God?” The fellow shakes his head and says he is scared too. When his friend asks him why, he answers, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”

It is quite possible that the rich man in Mark’s gospel today could have felt the same way that this old man did. The rich man comes to Jesus inquiring what he must DO to inherit eternal life. For Mark, eternal life is a synonym for the Kingdom of God. He uses the two terms interchangeably. In Jesus’ time it was widely believed that the rich were more likely to inherit the Kingdom of God. Their wealth was something that they had worked hard to accumulate over time or they had inherited. The rich man was most likely used to doing something in order to inherit great wealth (aka the Kingdom of God).

Jesus’ response is enough to jar us as it exposes the shakiness that is the bridge between the have’s and the have-not’s. Jesus flips the understanding of what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God.

Remember last week when we read from the Gospel of Mark, the disciples were trying to keep the children away from Jesus? Jesus said, “Let them come to me, because the Kingdom of God belongs to ones such as these.” Remember how Edwin told us a few times that in Jesus’ day, children were expected to not be seen and not be heard. They had no social status what so ever. They were the least of these. And Jesus says that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. Jesus has flipped the understanding of how to enter the Kingdom. He does the same this week, with the rich man.

Jesus calls the rich man to give up all of his possessions and follow Him. The man, as Lamar Williamson, points out, was mostly awe-struck, astonished at what Jesus was asking of him. And the man walked away.

This is the part of the story where we usually yell out like we were watching our favorite TV show, “Dude, what are you doing?? You’re walking away from Jesus??” In Mark’s gospel this is the only time someone is called to follow Jesus and does not immediately do so. But, as Megan, who is also preaching on this text today, pointed out to me, we don’t know what the man does when he leaves. Maybe he was disappointed. Maybe he was angry and bitter. We really don’t know, Mark does not tell us, that’s another story for another book for another day. The question it raises for us is, where are we walking? Where are we going when Jesus calls us?

Today is Children’s Sabbath which is sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund who works tirelessly to ensure every child is healthy, is educated, and has an equal start. They challenge faith communities, like this one, to transform our communities and our nation as they defend and care for the youngest, weakest, poorest, and most vulnerable. The least of these.

So, while we are here in this beautiful place of worship and not in line at the Toys-R-Us, we must tackle some tough questions. Are we engaging in our Christian education in spiritual disciplines that lead to the practice of risk-taking mission and deep authentic community to seek justice for all children? Are we engaging people in our ministries in leadership to equip them to be the change they wish to see in the world? As we consider the millions of children in our own country who live in poverty, who are homeless, abused, neglected, without health insurance, or who are hungry, we must think about how we can be the body, the hands, and the feet of Christ for these children to work for – to pursue – justice on their behalf.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel knew something about pursuing justice. He said once, after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, “It felt as if my feet were praying.” Rabbi Heschel and Dr. King were walking with purpose and intent. To pursue is to hold purpose, there is nothing accidental or incidental about what we are doing. Rabbi Heschel would write, “The term ‘pursue’ carries strong connotations of effort, eagerness. This implies more than merely respecting or following justice”; in other words, justice is something we actively pursue. We don’t just sit back and say oh, that’s a great idea. The talk the talk and we walk the walk.

When a child is in absolute jeopardy, mortal danger, we put out an Amber Alert – we tell the whole community that we are in pursuit of the child and the one who is endangering that child, it is a time of utmost urgency and everyone has to get involved, everyone is expected to be aware, to look out for the child, to do what they can to help rescue the child in danger.

Brothers and sisters, this is our Amber Alert. We as a community of faith, as ones who follow the Christ, need to be on the lookout for children in danger, we need to be in pursuit for safety, to see that justice is done. In an Amber Alert, we get all kinds of information about the child, including their face, name, and story plastered everywhere!

There are countless faces of children lining up, not at Toys-R-Us, but at soup kitchens and other churches and agencies to get one hot meal or one box of food or for the lucky chance of getting to see a doctor at the free clinic. They are lining up all over Africa, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Dominic Republic, Washington D. C., and Lynchburg, Virginia.

We most likely will not get to see the faces of the 16.4 million children in this country who live in poverty, or the millions without needed health care, or the countless faces of children who go to bed hungry. We most likely won’t see the faces of the 5, 367 children and youth who are in foster care in Virginia and the 1, 372 who are waiting to be adopted by a forever family.

But some of us will. 25% of the population in Lynchburg is made up of children living below the poverty level. It is easy to look out and not see, but chances are with 25% of the population being children below the poverty level, we’ve met them. We’ve see them somewhere. How are we going to respond? Are we going to walk away?

Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment was, and he answered two-fold: “Love God. Love each other.” We are called to love our neighbors are ourselves. We are called to love our enemies. We are called to love all people. And because we love, we pursue justice. When we pursue justice we are showing others our love.

We can rest assured that the faces we don’t see, God does. God knows each of their names, each of their faces, and each of their stories, just as God knows each of ours. And God has called us to go in pursuit of justice and love on their behalf – the nameless/faceless children of our community and our world. I challenge you this week to consider how God is calling you to be in ministry with children and youth whether that is here at Peakland or in our community of Lynchburg, or beyond. How is God calling you and how fast are you willing to go?

Amen.

Not Responsible for Response

This quote from one of my professors at Union seminary in Richmond was helpful to me this past week.  Not just as something to quote in my sermon, but for me personally. I know it means something to you.

“The word for us in this text [Mark 6:1-13] is that we are not held responsible for the response to our ministries in Christ’s name, but only for our own faithfulness.  With such assurance, we can witness boldly and faithfully.” (Beverly Zink-Sawyer)