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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Cotton Headed Ninny Muggins-Remix - 10/19/2018

A little over 20 years ago, people from about 20 different Christian denominations got together and created the revised common lectionary, which we use here at Eden. It's a three-year cycle of weekly readings that we use to guide what biblical texts we hear each week in worship and study.

It's a good tool. It makes sure that we spend time in each of the gospels. This year we're in Mark. The new church year is right around the corner and we will begin reading Luke. The year after that, we'll be back to Matthew. We meander over into John at various times every year. Using a lectionary prevents people like me from using only the texts they like or are comfortable with for preaching and teaching. Another benefit is that the revised common lectionary is used by many mainline Christian denominations. So chances are during the week when we see our friends and colleagues from the  Roman Catholic, Methodist or Episcopalian churches, we are all spending time with the same texts and can have rich and diverse conversations about them. It's one way Christ's Church is actually unified in this world.

All that being said, we must also acknowledge that the lectionary is devised by humans and if we know anything about humans, we know perfection is not among our gifts.

This week's lectionary is case and point.

For one thing, if I were among the people gathered for the task of deciding what segments of the scriptures to use, I would have started this week's reading from Mark at verse 32.

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, 'See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.'

“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.'” (32-35)

Starting at vs. 32 changes the whole feel of this text. It helps us to see that Jesus is patient and unrelenting in his effort to describe his trial, public humiliation, execution AND resurrection. And still … the disciples are not getting it. Three times we've seen this in Mark. Each time Jesus says he will be judged, mocked, killed and rise again, the disciples respond with something that shines a light on their ongoing lack of understanding.

The first time, Peter rebuked Jesus for speaking this description aloud. How could he say this? They were going up to Jerusalem to set things right, to run the oppressors out of there and put Jesus on the throne. That was the Messiah King and the solution they imagined … a warrior, like King David who could defeat or outsmart the Roman overlords. And remember Jesus' response to Peter? “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (8:33)

Peter just couldn't wrap his head around what Jesus was saying. And that trend continued.

The second time, Jesus tells them again what will happen when they get to Jerusalem. The disciples respond by arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them … again ... about the Kingdom of God … as God envisions it, not humans. He does this by bringing a little child among them, a human being of the lowest social status in that culture. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37)

Today's reading continues this now familiar pattern. Jesus tells them again, quite bluntly, what it will look like when the Son of Humanity enters the seat of the overlords and tyrants to upset power structures and reveal even more of the Kingdom of God on earth. It won't be like they think. In a world where men in particular gained status by dominating others, and were despised and shamed based on who dominated them, what Jesus is suggesting is so foreign that it just continually confounds his followers. And so we get today's third example of where the disciples are in all of this … they are not listening, they do not understand, they cling fiercely to the broken reality they know …  because they just cannot imagine this new and better way that Jesus is suggesting.

They cling fiercely to the broken reality they know … because they just cannot imagine this new and better way that Jesus is suggesting.

From our vantage point on this side of the cross and the empty tomb, the disciples can seem so thick-headed.

“We want to ask you something, but before we do, promise you'll say yes!” It's a familiar tactic to any of us who have spent time caring for a small child so excited about something they try get permission to go forth before they even say what they want. “When we get to Jerusalem and you take control and kick out all the bad guys, please let us rule with you in your glory … one of us seated on your right and one on your left.”

Again, they weren't listening or, they were and they were so confused and afraid, they didn't ask for clarification. They have no idea what they are asking, as Jesus points out and as we know, because we already know who is on the right and left of Jesus in Jerusalem … it's a foreshadowing of the two nameless and forgiven bandits who are crucified with Jesus.

The gospel writer does not set up this pattern between Jesus and the disciples haphazardly for us. It's quite purposeful. So what truth does it reveal to us then? Is it that we are all a bunch of cotton-headed ninny muggins? That’s a bit harsh, but there may be a little truth in that too because, let's face it, how many times do we have to be reminded that what the world tells us is most life-giving, most powerful, most lasting, is actually far less life-giving, far less powerful, and far less lasting than our God and God's love for us? How often to we need to be reminded that our sins are forgiven and our souls are sparkling and refreshed in the waters of baptism … or that we are powerfully fed and nourished in the bread and wine of communion?

Well, according to the liturgies we've devised over the last 2,000 years, the music we sing, the prayers we recite, the fellowship we share, we need to be reminded and refreshed every week.

And so in that way we are not so different from our predecessors John and James. And as I've said before, I think we can draw a lot of comfort in a God who already knows this about us, especially on those hard days when it seems like such a struggle to keep our love of God and love of neighbor above the lure of earthly treasure and pleasure.

Through scripture, prayer, Christian music radio stations, assembling here every week for confession, forgiveness, a meal and fellowship, we get the reminders we need … we become the Peters and Marys and Johns and James of our time.

There is one other issue I might debate with the crafters of the lectionary … it is the pairing of this Isaiah reading with Jesus' passion description. This is a beautiful text from Isaiah – one of the so-called suffering servant passages. However, we have no clear evidence that our gospel writer was using this Isaiah language in telling the story of Jesus, even though he or she was probably quite familiar with it.

This is one of those places where we Christians are wise to tread carefully in how we use the Jewish holy texts to support our Christian beliefs. It would be like someone taking your life story – your struggles and victories, your dreams and passions, your relationships with people you love and your enemies – and superimposing it on their own life to justify their own walk on the planet. It's just not cool or respectful. So we must be mindful of when we read Jewish scriptures and apply our Christian points of view to them. While we as Christians can live and serve each other confident in our salvation through Jesus, we cannot presume we know all the ways in which God works in our world.

Another reason I've bucked against this Isaiah-Mark pairing is because it really reinforces the idea that Jesus was tried, flogged, mocked and finally lynched on a cross as a substitute for us. It's a common metaphor for the way we understand the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But I would challenge us to push back at that idea little because it's not entirely accurate.

We are called to be servants to creation in Jesus' name and any of us can be a suffering servant. We might feel compelled to speak a hard truth into an evil situation, we might bear one another's frailness and vulnerabilities at times, we might give of all we have for the sake of the neighbor. But Jesus was not a substitute for us on the cross or in his victory over death when he rose again on the third day. God came among us to do those things as Jesus because we could not … not because could but probably wouldn't, but simply because we are not able. Jesus is the ransom no human could pay … then, now or in times to come.

And to that we say: Alleluia! Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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