But Remember Who God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Pentecost + June 3, 2018

Readings: Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

There are some things that Christians say a lot that are true and important to really remind ourselves of from time to time: God’s ways are not our ways. God knows better than we do. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Being a disciple of Christ requires us to sacrifice.

Sometimes, however, people apply these principles in mistaken ways — ways that lead to harm that is not actually part of God’s will.

The hot topic in America’s Evangelical world right now is the story of Paige Patterson, a pastor and major leader in the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently stories have surfaced in which Patterson gave sermons or counseling advice addressing women in abusive marriages. He advised them to stay in these marriages — to stay in these homes, forgive their husbands even while the abuse continued, and even to face more abuse — in the hope of saving their husband’s souls.[1]

I can muster up some generosity and say I think Patterson really was motivated by his understanding of scripture and God’s will in matters like divorce, forgiveness, and eternal salvation. But when his attempts to teach faithfully were causing his parishioners to come to him with black eyes — in a society where 50% of female victims of murder are killed by their husbands or boyfriends[2] — he should have stopped to re-evaluate, to pray, and to study scripture. Would our God who, throughout the Old Testament, sends prophecy calling out kings and leaders for their treatment of orphans and widows and those without power — want women to stay in dangerous relationships? Would our God, revealed in the compassion and justice of Jesus Christ, really ask victims to bear responsibility for those abusing them? Or was there another, more faithful way to care for both the abuser and the abused?

History is full of examples like this, examples of people who were, perhaps, honestly trying to be faithful to God, but whose judgment was clouded by the sins of society or their own personal desires. Americans argued — with biblical arguments — that slavery was the will of God. Politicians argue with pastors who advocate on behalf of people who suffer from poverty, saying, “Well, y’know Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ so this is just the way things are.” (By the way, when Jesus said that, he was referencing Deuteronomy, and that whole commandment says: Since the poor you will always have with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land”[Deut. 15:11].) One of the things that breaks my heart the most is when people are diagnosed with something horrible or injure themselves badly and spend a lot of time wondering, “What did I do wrong, that God would do this to me?” That’s not the God we see in Jesus.

So yes, we need to remember that God is beyond us, that God’s ways are not our ways, and sometimes that’s going to be annoying or hard or require sacrifice — but we also have to balance out that teaching with teachings about who God is, what God desires, what God thinks is important.

I think that’s one of the things Jesus was trying to point out when he challenged the Pharisees on the right ways to observe the sabbath.


John Opie and William Bromley, The Macklin Bible, “Christ Healing the Woman on the Sabbath Day” (1799). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

But first, a side note: I think it’s worth saying the Pharisees might not have found Jesus’s teachings about sabbath observance all that heretical. Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” and he asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” before answering his own question by healing a man on the sabbath.

The Jewish Rabbinic tradition — which grew out of the Pharisees’ movement — actually sides with Jesus on these points. Their teachings from the time of Jesus include sayings like: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it,” and, “Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.”[3] There’s an overriding principle in Jewish law which says that preserving life is more important than observing other laws.[4] This rule comes from ancient interpretation of Leviticus 18:5, in which God said, “You shall keep my statues and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live.”

So, probably, what went down between Jesus and the Pharisees was not exactly a disagreement over interpretation of sabbath law. Rather, the Pharisees had already decided they didn’t like Jesus, and they were trying desperately to catch him doing something wrong so they could publicly accuse him and get those crowds of people to stop following him. But Jesus kept just toeing the line, doing things that were just a little scandalous and daring the Pharisees to say something; but Jesus could also turn to scripture and tradition to prove that what he was doing was right.

I read a webcomic this week where the writer remembered back to being a child, to a Halloween where she was sent to school in a dinosaur costume. And being in that costume — being a dinosaur — made her feel powerful, like the rules didn’t apply to her. So when her teacher told her to sit in a circle with the other children, she suddenly felt that dinosaur-power fill her, and she rebelled. She ran around the room, knocking over chairs and toys, grabbing a handful of pens, and scribbling manically on the walls. Then came the showdown: a moment of stillness while the teacher stared her down and demanded, with all her teacher’s authority, “Give me the pens. Now.”A pause as the child stared back at her teacher, deciding…and then she threw the pens right at her teacher’s face.[5]

I imagine that moment in the synagogue felt almost like that to the Pharisees. Jesus, we’re watching you. Don’t do it. Don’t heal that man. It’s the sabbath. We’re the teachers here, and you know what we say about the sabbath. Don’t do it, Jesus. And Jesus looked them right in the eye, reached out his hand, and healed.

Of course Jesus chose these moments of rebellion very carefully. He was making a point. He was, for instance, claiming his own authority over and above that of the Pharisees. I know the law as well as you do, and maybe better; I know that what I’m doing is in line with God’s will. Just try and tell me it’s not. He even put himself in the place of King David: as David had a mission that deserved special dispensation, so did Jesus. Claiming that he deserved the same as the greatest of Israel’s kings was a big claim indeed. No wonder the Pharisees wanted to discredit him.

But, to work our way back to my original topic: this sabbath healing was also an opportunity to draw people’s eyes to God’s real purpose for the sabbath law, and to the central purpose of Jesus’s mission — to draw people’s eyes back to what God is like and what God cares about.

Our first reading for today, from the book of Deuteronomy, told us about the reason God commanded the Israelites to observe the sabbath as a day of rest. God said: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” We could sum that up: Remember that God saved your people from forced labor; now enjoy this day of rest. The sabbath is meant as a gift, and as a day to remember God’s gift of freedom, God’s gift of salvation, and to give thanks by celebrating and enjoying the gift.

Jesus’s mission was to bring those gifts of freedom and salvation to even more people.

So one sabbath day, Jesus met a man with a withered hand. A man who either was injured or born with that difficulty; who probably has trouble finding work; who had, maybe, spent a lot of time anxiously wondering what he’d done that made God curse him. So when Jesus met that man on the sabbath, he knew how to best observe the sabbath law: by granting that man the gift of healing and freedom.

And yeah, maybe it was a little scandalous. The man wasn’t in mortal danger; couldn’t you wait till tomorrow to do the work of healing, Jesus? But Jesus’s mission to bring freedom and salvation was too urgent and too important to be so scrupulous about the sabbath.[6]

And what does that tell us about God’s priorities?

It’s really easy for us to focus too much on the idea that “God is above us, we need to just surrender and obey God,” so that we end up making obedience to laws more important than God’s mission to save people and free people. Or, actually: we end up making our interpretation of God’s laws more important than God’s main mission.

God is bigger than us. God does give us commandments that are difficult. God does ask us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things we don’t want to do, to sacrifice, even — sometimes — to suffer. But think of those things as, like…facts about God.

Who God is, is even more important than that. We can’t know what God wants from us without first knowing who God is. And the God we see revealed in both the Law and the Gospel is a God who cares for people, and not just our souls, but our bodies and our minds, too. God cares for our relationships and our societies and our planet.

If the teaching we’re hearing doesn’t seem to match up with who God is — if it harms rather than saves — it’s worth turning back to the scriptures and seeing what the message really is. That’s what Martin Luther would do. And, according to today’s gospel reading, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would do, too.

[1] Ed Kilgore, “#MeToo in the Pews: A Backlash to the Southern Baptist Patriarchy,” New York Magazine, 9 May 2018. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/05/metoo-engulfs-southern-baptist-patriarch-paige-patterson.html Accessed 3 June 2018.

[2] Camila Domonoske, “CDC: Half of All Female Homicide Victims are Killed by Intimate Partners,” National Public Radio, 21 July 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of-all-female-murder-victims-

are-killed-by-intimate-partners  Accesed 3 June 2018.

[3] Quoted in Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6”, Working Preacher, 3 June 2018. Online: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667 Accessed 28 May 2018.

[4] Simon Glustrom, “Saving a Life (Pikuach Nefesh),” My Jewish Learning. Online: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/saving-a-life-pikuach-nefesh/ Accessed 28 May 2018.

[5] Allie Brosh, “Menace,” Hyperbole and a Half, 2 October 2013. Online: https://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/10/menace.html?m=1

[6] N. T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 25-28.


St. Nicholas: Image of the Good Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + St. Nicholas Day + December 6, 2017

Reading: John 10:11-18

Our first story for tonight begins like a fairy tale or a romcom: with three women – three sisters — dreaming of being married. But these sisters held out very little hope of actually finding husbands, because their family was poor. This was the late 200s or early 300s AD, and they needed a dowry – a large gift from the bride’s father to the groom – in order to attract a good husband. Without a dowry, their chances of being married were slim; and if they were not married, these women had essentially no opportunity to earn money to support themselves and their family, and they would become a burden; they faced a very strong likelihood that their family would have to sell them into slavery – in our contemporary terminology, give them over to human trafficking — just so that everyone could survive.

One morning, one of the sisters was taking the family’s stockings down from the fireplace, where they’d been hung out to dry. One of the stockings was surprisingly heavy. She reached down inside, pulled out a small bag, and opened it to find a pile of gold coins. The family rejoiced at their luck, and soon the eldest daughter married.

Not long after the marriage, another bag of gold appeared mysteriously in the house, and the middle daughter was able to marry. Seeing the pattern forming, the father decided to start keeping watch at night, hoping to discover the person behind these generous gifts. He sat awake near the fireplace, night after night, until finally he saw a third bag of gold come sailing in through the open window. The father jumped up and stuck his head through the window, where he caught a glimpse of a local monk sneaking away. “Oh, Nicholas, it’s you!” the father shouted. “You have saved my daughters from disaster!” Embarrassed, Nicholas begged the man to keep his good deeds a secret, saying “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers.”[1]

Stories like these form the legend of St. Nicholas – the ancient Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey) who has been remembered for centuries for living a life of remarkable generosity, for defending the innocent and the wrongly accused, and for protecting those in danger.


Statue at the Church of St. Nicholas, Ebermannstadt, Germany. Statue by Harro Frey (1989); photo by Immanuel Giel (2006). Via Wikimedia Commons.

In one story, Nicholas appeared to be dozing off during a dinner at the Council of Nicea. In his sleep, he heard voices calling his name, and he left his body behind, following the sound of the voices out into the middle of an ocean, where a ship was caught in a raging storm. Nicholas raised his hands and the winds and the thunder and lightning hushed. When he awoke back at Nicea, another bishop said, “So much has happened while you slept!” Nicholas replied, “Yes indeed, a ship has been saved and many sailors rescued.” The bishops assumed he was speaking in metaphor: the Church was a ship, and the council had saved the church from heresy. But sailors have believed differently, naming St. Nicholas as their patron saint.[2]

St. Nicholas even saved his people from the burden of high taxes. His people begged him to speak up to the Emperor about the taxation, and so Nicholas traveled to see Emperor Constantine and pled for his people. The emperor granted a large tax cut and gave Nicholas a copy of the order, so that Nicholas could return home with proof of Constantine’s decision. Before Nicholas could return home however, some of Constantine’s finance ministers convinced him that the tax cuts were a really bad idea for the royal treasury. So Constantine called Nicholas back and asked him to return the order so that they could change it to smaller reduction. “I can’t,” Nicholas said. “The order has already been put into effect.” Miraculously, Nicholas had already gotten the order all the way to Myra: he had thrown the parchment into the sea, and almost immediately it was found in the water back home and rushed right to the proper authorities. Faced with such divine intervention, Constantine allowed the big tax cut to stand.[3]

For thousands of years people have continued to tell stories of St. Nicholas saving those in danger, even after his death. Sailors claimed that Nicholas pulled them up out of the sea after they were cast overboard; parents claimed that Nicholas saved their children from danger; others claim that he returned people home after they were kidnapped or put in prison. Some people in a Palestinian city claim that St. Nicholas protected their city from bombing in the 1940s, having seen a vision of St. Nicholas with his arms stretched out, catching the bombs. After a battle with Israeli soldiers in the 2000s, one Palestinian gunman claimed to have seen a man with white beard protecting the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church from bullets.[4] Even if you maybe don’t believe stories like these, we can see the power of St. Nicholas’s memory and the devotion the stories of his life continue to inspire in people.

And of course St. Nicholas has inspired traditions throughout the world.  In many countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, children leave their shoes out the night before St. Nicholas Day, often with a tray of carrots or hay for the saint’s horse, and in the morning they find candies, fruit, and other gifts tucked into their shoes. In a Mexican town named for St. Nicholas, his festival lasts for an entire week and includes a parade of his statue, fireworks, and music. The town of Beit Jala in Palestine is home to a cave where St. Nicholas supposedly lived around the time of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Lutherans as well as many Muslims take part in St. Nicholas Day festivities there, which include a procession to the cave and concerts. The memory of St. Nicholas draws people from around the world to celebrate.[5]

I can’t resist the pun here: so many people have flocked to St. Nicholas because he was a shepherd to his people in the same way Jesus was. The people of his time and place, and then people around the world and throughout the centuries, have seen in him the image of the great Good Shepherd.  Jesus once said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and when we hear that we think of Jesus’s supreme example of laying down his life for us on the cross. But we can expand how we understand that, too: the good shepherd must lay down his life for the sheep in both large and small acts every day, choosing to put his sheep’s needs over his desire to take a nap in the shade or run away from the wolf or spend all day by the village well, hoping that the young woman with the sharp wit comes by to draw water.

Jesus laid down his life in large and small ways throughout his life: he saw people in need of healing on the street, and he stopped to help them. He stood up to powerful people on behalf of those who were suffering under their rule. He fed the crowds who came out be healed and taught. Jesus death on the cross was the strongest example in an entire life laid down for the mission of God and in service to others.

St. Nicholas took the teachings and the model of Jesus seriously and laid down his life for God and for his people, too. When he was still young and his parents died, they left him a sizeable inheritance; and he knew right away he must use that money to help those who were in need. He spent time in prison when the Emperor persecuted Christians. He listened to his people and responded to their needs. He gave away money and food, he stood up for those being mistreated, and he saved those in danger. And he was always quick to point back to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the one who inspired his good deeds, as the true source of the generosity and protection seen through St. Nicholas. As he said to the father of the three brides: “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts.”

As we remember these stories of St. Nicholas, and as we see in them the image of the Good Shepherd, I hope that we, too, may see the opportunities we have to lay down our lives for others, maybe especially in the small, everyday ways – in opportunities to put a loved one’s needs first, or to stand up for those who are mistreated, to protect someone else in body or in reputation or in fair treatment, even just to listen to another person’s story. And I hope that we also pay close attention to notice the ways that others lay down their lives for us, and catch a glimpse of the Good Shepherd at work in our family and friends and even in strangers.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, who in your love gave to your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness on land and sea: Grant, we pray,that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [6]

[1] “Three Impoverished Maidens or The Story of the Dowries,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/three-impoverished-maidens/

[2] “Where Was Nicholas?”, St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/where-was-nicholas/

[3] “Tax Relief for Myra,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/tax-relief-for-myra/

[4] “Palestine,” St. Nicholas Center. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/palestine/

[5] From “Around the World,” St. Nicholas Center; information from the particular pages of the countries named. Online: https://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/around-the-world/

[6] Anglican prayer, “Liturgical Prayers,” The St. Nicholas Center. Online: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/liturgical-prayers/

The Joy of Easter and the Cost of Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017

Readings: Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

What words or images come to mind when I say the word “Easter”?

I’m sure at least a few of you immediately thought, “Bunny!” — and that’s ok. But what else comes to mind? An empty tomb? A resurrected body? Joy and lilies and the promise of new life? Maybe that old song, “Victory in Jesus…”

I’ll hazard the guess that none of you quietly whispered, “Martyrdom,” or “Jesus’s last night on earth.” And yet, this morning, five weeks into the Easter season, in which we especially celebrate Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, these are the Bible readings we are given: the killing of the very first martyr, Stephen, and a brief sound bite from Jesus’s last words to his disciples before being arrested and executed. Weird, right? Yet for some reason, within the last few decades a bunch of bishops and pastors and scholars got together and decided that every three years our churches should read these stories during the Easter season. Why might that be?

Well, your guess is as good as mine: which is to say, you can probably reflect on what these readings have to teach us about living in the time after Jesus’s resurrection and come up with some pretty great thoughts of your own. But for me, the fact that these readings come during the Easter season kind of shocked me into thinking about what we expect from God because of Jesus’s resurrection. What do we expect the Christian life to be like? What does it mean for us that Jesus has won the victory over sin and death? Hows does the resurrection affect our lives?

It can be tempting to focus on the parts of the Easter message that we really want to hear: You are saved! Death is defeated! The victory is won! It can be tempting to think that those messages are the whole of Christianity, and then turn the gospel into something like, “Now we can take it easy, because Jesus did it all.” Or “God will give you so much happiness and success.” Preachers have been getting away with that stuff for a long time.

Today’s readings remind us that part of the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is that we are raised up to be the Body of Christ. Jesus ascended to the Father; we — the church — are here to represent him, to be his presence for one another and for the world, to continue his mission. The reading from 1 Peter tells us this with some metaphors about being living stones “built into a spiritual house.” In the gospel reading, Jesus says it a bit more straightforwardly: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

And the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in particular reminds us of something that it is easy for us to forget in the comfortable times of our lives as American Christians: if we are the Body of Christ, then we are a crucified body. We are a body who has faced ridicule, persecution, and violence for speaking truth, for staying faithful to our God, for caring for those whom others would rather push away.

Jesus’s first disciples could not have forgotten that, even if they’d tried. Even prior to the crucifixion, they knew they were walking a dangerous path with Jesus. And then after the resurrection they faced trouble and persecution, and almost all of them died martyrs’ deaths. And yes, they preached about all that Jesus gave them: peace, healing, power, hope, a sense of mission, forgiveness, love, a more intimate knowledge of God. But they also did not shy away from the fact that being a follower of Jesus cost them dearly, too, in life and in death.

We don’t hear that preached on too often — at least not so starkly; we usually don’t bring that up when we talk about what being a Christian means to us; we hardly ever sing about it. Yet in the last ELCA hymnal — the green one — there was this beautiful, haunting song that captured that truth perfectly:

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown

Such happy simple fisherfolk

Before the Lord came down


Contented peaceful fishermen

Before they ever knew

The peace of God That fill’d their hearts

Brimful and broke them too.


Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless, in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head-down was crucified.


The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod,

Yet let us pray for but one thing–

The marvelous peace of God.[1]

Being people of the resurrection means that God comes into our lives with peace and with purpose. It means that God messes up our lives by making us part of God’s plan and God’s work in the world — which sometimes means we will have to set aside our own comfortableness or our own desires; which calls us to give more and love more and sacrifice more; and yes, sometimes, this may get risky or painful or even dangerous.

Those first disciples — the ones who kept this whole “Jesus” thing going — knew this well. They were hurt. They were imprisoned. They were killed. And yet through it all they continued to call Jesus their savior. They continued to talk about “the peace of God which passes all understanding.” They waxed poetic about their personal experiences of the love and grace of God in their lives. Something about following Jesus made all their sacrifices worth it.

I’ll confess that even though I’ve thought about this weird phenomemon of the Easter joy and the Easter call to sacrifice  a lot (especially in these last few days, as I’ve tried to come up with a nice pretty bow to tie on to the end of this sermon for you), and even though I often feel a sense of joy in the moments where I have felt called to sacrifice as part of my discipleship…despite all of that, what it is about following Jesus that makes sacrifice worth it is hard to put words to. It’s something of a mystery, by which I mean — something I know to be true, but also unexplainable.

Another martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, tried to make sense of that tension between the experience of the gift of grace and the simultaneous experience of the cost of following Jesus in this way:

“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”[2]

The closest I can come to explaining it, is that it must have something to do with love. I mean, it almost makes sense to us when a mother sacrifices for her children, because of her love for them.

Maybe, in a similar way, it is the love of God for us and our love for God that fills us with all those wonderful Easter blessings: love, joy, peace, meaning, life — and that same love that makes us part of the crucified Body of Christ, and makes us more willing to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult. Maybe there is not a contradiction there, between the gifts of God and the call to sacrifice — maybe it is just part of the mystery of love…that same mystery of love that caused God to take on flesh and sacrifice for us.

Let us pray. Holy God, in the times where we feel mostly clearly your blessings and in the times when we feel most clearly the cost of following you, may we always know your love, your joy, and your peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, our way, our truth, and our life. Amen.

[1] William Alexander Percy, “They Cast Their Nets in Galillee” (1924), Lutheran Book of Worship, #449.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

WWJD? Serve and suffer.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 18, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

My brother, John, is a senior in high school this year. I called home the other day, and he answered: “You’re talking to the new president of the Science Olympiad Team!” I congratulated him, and he continued, “I don’t know why they voted for me. My campaign wasn’t very strong, and the other candidate was really good.” I asked him what his election platform had been. He said he’d run under the slogan “What would John do?” I laughed first, but then I thought: well, that’s not such a bad slogan. If I trust what John would do in most situations, that’s a good reason to give him my vote. And I guess it worked.

Later I told a friend that story, and that got us reminiscing about those “WWJD?” bracelets that were so popular in the ‘90s. Kids all over the school had brightly-colored bracelets tied around their wrists to remind them to ask “What would Jesus do?” in every situation.

But since my time at Lutherock this summer, I can’t think about those bracelets without hearing Pastor Alex Hoffner’s voice in my head. He was in seminary when the bracelets were popular, and he told us — in his unforgettably intense, southern preacher-storyteller way — about a professor who hated the bracelets. When he saw a student wearing a WWJD? bracelet, he would get in real’ close to them and say: “What would Jesus do? Jesus would die! Are you ready to die? Then take that thing off!”

I guess that professor thought the WWJD? fad represented a watered-down form of Christianity, like it just skimmed the top of the question of what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes. A lot of the time, when we think about what Jesus would do, we think about being kinder. Being nice even to those that are mean to us; being generous in giving to charity and maybe the occasional beggar; if we’re feeling particularly spiritual, we might even ask the “weird guy” if he might like to sit at our lunch table. Which matches how we remember Jesus most of the time: as a kind, compassionate man who knew how to turn the other cheek and love everyone. And being that kind of person is difficult. It is a way of putting other people before ourselves that requires some suffering on our part, some acting out of the “dying-to-self” part of our baptism. But that image of Jesus is just one facet of who Jesus is. It kind of makes Jesus into a teddy bear.

I did not expect this when I googled “teddy bear Jesus.” From the Teddy Bear Museum in Jeju Island, South Korea. (More pictures here.)

But while Jesus was compassionate, that compassion could sometimes come out fiercely — less like a teddy bear, and more like a mother bear ready to defend her cubs. Jesus publicly condemned the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed and thirst for power and position (Matt. 23); Jesus dares to say that the rich will lose their position in God’s kingdom (Lk. 6:24-26); Jesus speaks up for those who are being abused by those in power. Jesus welcomes not just the outsiders, but the sinners (Lk. 15:1-2). Jesus is arrested, suffers, and dies, and Jesus demands that his followers carry that same cross. How many of us saw all those harsh stories when we looked down at our WWJD bracelet?

It’s been said that the Gospel of Mark was written for an early group of Christians who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to the work of the messiah and who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to discipleship.[1] The cross — meaning suffering, shame, death, and not just death, but laying down our lives — is not just an accidental part of Christ’s mission; it’s not just an incidental part of God’s plan that we have to get past in order to get the “real” stuff of the plan. The cross is the real plan. Jesus could not have been the messiah without being a suffering servant; and we cannot be true disciples without being suffering servants as well. That’s what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

In today’s gospel reading, we see that yet again the disciples themselves are missing that point. Just a few weeks ago we heard a story about the disciples arguing over who is the greatest of the disciples (Mark 9:30-37). And Jesus explains, “You’ve got it all wrong. Whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant to everyone.”

And now, just a few stories later, they’re at it again. Two of the disciples ask to be granted special places of power in Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus answers in the symbolic language of “drinking the cup that I drink” and being “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.” Because we know what is about to happen to Jesus, we know what he is warning them about: those who wish to be leaders like Jesus must be prepared to suffer like Jesus.

Then the rest of the disciples get word of this conversation, and they’re mad: Who are you two to ask for a special place? Who are you two to be rulers over the rest of us? But Jesus gives them almost exactly the same speech he gave them before: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark tells these kinds of stories over and over because the people he was writing to didn’t get it. He thought they needed to hear over and over that following Jesus is not about getting rewarded; it’s about suffering like Jesus suffered.

But Mark wasn’t alone in this effort. The entire New Testament is filled with the language of crucifixion, suffering, sacrifice, servant, slave, death.[2] It seems every writer felt the need to make the same points, because so, so many early Christians were having trouble taking in the same message: following Jesus is not about “living the good life” or about being better than others because we believe or because we go to church or because we follow a strict moral code: it’s about being willing to sacrifice and suffer so that others might live.

From the very beginning Christians have struggled to take in that message, and America’s Christian culture today is missing it, too. We tend to focus on what God’s love for us gives to us: forgiveness, peace of mind, strength, comfort, assurance, hope. We think sometimes about what God’s love for us demands of us, for our own good: repentance, change, obedience, courage.

But it’s more difficult to think of what God’s love for others demands of us: sacrifice, sharing, giving up our rights, speaking up on behalf of others, taking the place of servant so that others may feel the real effects of God’s love in their lives. We are called to sacrifice and to suffer not just so that our own lives may be better for it, but — and perhaps even more importantly — so that others’ lives may be better for it. And if we are truly called to do what Jesus would do, then we are called to be suffering servants — and that might mean making our lives worse for the sake of others. And if we are called to sacrifice and suffer for others even in ways that do not make sense, that do not seem fair, it is because we are called by the grace of God. And God’s grace does not flow from reason or fairness — thank God — but from love.

We are about to sing the hymn “By Gracious Powers,” (text / choral recording) which is based on a poem written by German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer just a few months before he was killed by the Nazis in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned for two years for undercover work against the Nazis, and was executed when he was linked to a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer with confirmation students, 1932. Image from German Federal Archive, available via wikimedia commons.

Amazingly, while in prison he was still working as theologian, writing essays on what he learned of God from his experiences. He planned out a book with this as the main point: that the greatest and most fundamental thing about Jesus Christ is that he existed for others. His power, his wisdom, his might — all this is grounded in his existence for others. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”[3]

And for Bonhoeffer this wasn’t just abstract thinking. This was something he knew about because he was living it. And he knew exactly how painful it could be. Bonhoeffer was saintly in his willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of others. He had taken a teaching position in America in 1939 in order to escape the necessity of swearing an oath to Hitler, but soon returned to Germany because he felt he must suffer with his people. Later, while he was in prison, a guard offered to help him escape and go into hiding, but Bonhoeffer turned down the offer, because he feared it might bring further suffering on his friends still in prison.

But what is most amazing in all this is Bonhoeffer’s faith that God was with him in the midst of his sacrifice and his suffering. This is what we hear in the poem, in language that sounds like it comes straight from today’s gospel reading:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.[4]

God’s love so filled Bonhoeffer that he could not help but choose to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for others. And even in the midst of his very human fear and despair, Bonhoeffer found some joy in that participation in Christ’s existence for others.

It’s unlikely that any of us will be called up to be a spy for the sake of the gospel, or to be imprisoned, or to die. But we are called to make radical, sacrificial choices every day as bearers of God’s grace to this world. May we listen more closely for those calls and be ready to sacrifice what they demand, in Jesus name. Amen.

[1] This is a common interpretation of Mark, but I’m riffing directly off of Fred Craddock, who was quoted by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton on the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week. The show’s blog is available here.

[2] This idea, too, comes from the work of Rev. Dr. Chilton and Rev. Dr. John Fairless in their Lectionary Lab Live Podcast.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition), ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 381.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “Powers of Good,”  Letters and Papers from Prison, 400.