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What Religion Is and What It Is Not

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Daniel J. Ott

One of the things that I like about living in the South is that there are lots of little churches with big signs.  Sometimes these signs are used as bulletin boards that announce upcoming events.  Sometimes they let us know what the sermon title is for Sunday.  Often, though, they become the bearer of slogans – they are the church’s bumper and folks come up with some interesting stickers to slap on that bumper.  You’ve probably seen some of the funny ones on the internet.  They range from the quite clever,  “Walmart Is Not the Only Saving Place” to the rather unfortunate, “Don’t Let Worries Kill You – Let the Church Help,” to the down right outrageous “Staying in Bed / Shouting, Oh God / Does Not Constitute Going to Church.”

But the one that I’ve seen a lot that really haunts me is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  On the one hand, I guess I know what this motto is supposed to mean.  Christian faith is not about reporting to church, going through the motions, and saying empty prayers.  Christian faith entails some sort of encounter with Christ. OK – I get it.  But on the other hand, I wonder what the implications of such a statement really are.  Does this slogan imply that religion is a bad thing?  Is it possible to have the ‘relationship’ that this slogan recommends without ‘religion?’  Should we bother coming here and involving ourselves with this religion – these symbols and rites and songs and this building – or could we just stay at home and foster a relationship with God?  These are the kinds of things that Religious Studies professors waste their time thinking about.

I guess the important thing would be to figure out what Jesus thought about religion.  In fact, the Gospels depict Jesus contending with folks over the matter of religion quite a bit.  Jesus seems to have a clear vision about what religion is and what it is not.

And the first thing that I think we can say is that Jesus concerned himself with religion.  He performed the rituals of the Jewish religion.  He observed the Sabbath, though he may have contended over what proper observance is.  He participated in the great feasts and festivals.  He made pilgrimage to the temple.  He knew the scriptures and the stories of the tradition.  He employed the symbols of the faith.  Jesus was religious.

And I should hurry to add that it seems that it was not necessary for Jesus to do these things.  He could have stayed in the countryside and preached and healed.  He did plenty of that to great effect.  He could have secluded himself in a garden and devoted himself to prayer.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  He could have avoided the matter of religion altogether and devoted himself completely to addressing the economic and political factors that caused the human suffering that he sought to relieve.

But Jesus was concerned with religion.  Jesus knew that if things were really going to change, then God would have to be involved in changing them.  And he knew that the way that we speak of God – the only way we can speak of the holy, the ultimate, the ineffable, the all-loving, most high, God is to engage in rituals, and symbols and traditions – the stuff of religion.  The only way to say anything true about God is to sing and dance, to light candles and whisper poems, to gather here and with stammering tongues and humble hearts try to name toward the un-namable together.  Yes – Christianity is about a relationship.  It is about an encounter with Christ, but the only way to encounter Christ, the only means we have to relate to God is religion.

So religion is what we use to have a relationship with God.  But we should hasten to add that while religion is a tool for our USE, we need to guard that religion does not become a tool for ABUSE.  Now we’re penetrating to the source of Jesus’ intense anger in our passage this morning.

The first half of this passage might seem at first blush to be a rather esoteric debate about keeping the Sabbath.  Those pesky Pharisees seem to be at it again, nitpicking about the ins and outs of Jewish law.  They find Jesus and his disciples making their way through some grain fields and picking some grain to eat as they go.  Now there are probably at least two violations of the prohibition against work on the Sabbath here.  The first problem is the traveling itself.  Jesus and his disciples should have been resting at home.  The second problem is the picking of grain.  While the implication of the passage only seems to be that the disciples are picking and eating a little as they go, the Pharisees could well interpret this as a violation of the injunction against harvesting and preparing food.

Now in order to understand what is really at stake here, we’ll need to shake off the well-worn caricatures that are too often passed on in Bible Studies and sermons.  They go as follows:  In this corner are the Pharisees – shallow hypocrites who prance about with their noses in the air pointing out various minor infractions of the Jewish holiness code.  In the other corner are Jesus and his disciples, heavenly minded, free spirited men who have no need of the trappings of religion because they always and everywhere penetrate beyond worldly concerns to the truly spiritual.  Unfortunately, armed with these caricatures we would be headed for a completely meaningless interpretation of the passage.

Let me recast the contenders:  In this corner are the Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite from Jerusalem.  The Pharisees together with the scribes and the priests have cornered the market on religion and are concerned with pressing their influence on the masses.  They do this not only because this elite status gives them prominence within the Jewish community, but also because the ability to control the masses is a valuable commodity to their Roman overlords.  In fact, this ability can and is sold to the Romans for cash.  The religious elite keep the masses in check and the Roman occupiers pay them for the service.

In the other corner is a band of poor Galileans.  They are fishermen and carpenters.  But they have given up even these humble professions in order to travel about and minister to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  They bring with them a message of hope and renewal.  They encourage the masses that if they renew their faith in God, God will deliver them from the evil powers – both spiritual and political – that bind them.  These itinerant ministers of God’s kingdom have no means.  They are always traveling from village to village, often through grain fields and they grow hungry.  So they are accustomed to employing the Jewish practice of gleaning – plucking a little grain to eat as they pass through the edges of a local farmer’s field.

Now perhaps we see what’s at stake.  Perhaps Jesus’ ire is raised because it is rather easy for these Pharisees to point out the speck in the disciples eyes.  After all, the Pharisees are probably right to say that the disciples have violated the rules about the Sabbath.  But is it just for a rich religious elite on a mission of self-aggrandizement to critique these poor, hungry traveling ministers on a mission to ease human suffering?  Now we can see just how incisive Jesus’ memorable saying is, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We might say, “Religion was made for humankind, and not humankind for Religion.”  All too often in our history religion has ceased to be a liberating tool used by the masses and become an abusive tool used by the elite.  Even in the brief history of our own nation we can give a humiliating litany.  Religion became a tool of the elite to prop up the practice of chattel slavery.  Millions of Africans were stripped of their humanity, while the elite perverted religion to justify the unjustifiable.  Religion was and is used to abuse women.  Elite and not-so-elite men have used religion to say that women are less than fully human, that they are rightly a subservient class, that they should keep their mouths shut and that they are too weak and unpredictable to be trusted with any power – in politics and even more in religion.  Today gay and lesbian men and women are abused by religion.  Even if we grant that monogamously devoted persons of the same sex commit a sin by any sex act they might share – a conviction that I think is wrongheaded and not scripturally justifiable – but even if we grant that gay and lesbian men and women sin, does this justify the use of religion to deny a person benefits and healthcare?  Can we justify the continued use of religion to relegate gay and lesbian men and women to an inferior class?  Can we stand by while religion is used to prop up a culture of intolerance that leads directly to gross and senseless violence against gay and lesbian men and women?   Will we continue to allow religion to be used for abuse?  When will we realize that true religion is for the flourishing of all humankind, not for stripping some of their humanity?

In the second story, Jesus really begins to press his case. Jesus goes to a public meeting that he knows the Pharisees will attend.  The Pharisees are strangely silent, but Jesus does enough talking for everybody.  Obviously planning to heal him, Jesus calls a man with a withered hand forward and he asks a direct and penetrating question of his opponents.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  With these words Jesus has raised the stakes and acknowledged the harsh truth that religion is a matter of life and death.  There is a decision to be made – is religion to be used to do good or harm, to save life or to kill?

This is a pressing question for us today as it was for Jesus in his time and as it has been throughout history.  In Jesus’ time his peaceful stand against abusive religion led to his own cruel torture and execution.  Jesus knew well that religion was a matter of life and death.  In the time that the Gospel According to Mark was written, Jewish revolutionaries were taking up arms to defend their homeland and their religious freedoms only to be put down viciously by the Roman general Titus – their homeland scorched – their Temple razed.  Soon the Christian religion would need to decide whether to follow in Jesus’ peaceful wake or to marry herself to the power politics of Rome and the violence that Empire necessarily entails.  Unfortunately, she chose power over peace.  This set the course for a Christian history riddled with power brokering, crusading, empire building and all the killing that these require.

Today, we, too, know that religion is a matter of life and death.  We have a choice to use religion to do good or to do harm – to save life or to kill.  All you need to do is to take a look at the news to know that many are choosing to do harm.  The Taliban and al-Qaeda are still wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are stuck in a cycle of violence as they vie for control of the country.  Of course, Israel continues to struggle with its neighbors and the Palestinian people – a struggle with a long and complex history that is often exacerbated by religion.  In each of these cases and many more around the globe, religion has become a source of and tool for power and violence.  Religion does harm and kills.  I can only imagine how hot Jesus’ anger might burn if he were witness to these perversions of religion.

I believe or text for today speaks to us about what religion is and what it is not.  Religion was made for humankind, not humankind for religion. Religion is about engaging deep mystery, not holding tight to cold doctrine.  Religion is for our use, not for abuse.  Religion is to do good, not to do harm.  Religion is a soft thing, not hard.  Religion is for peace; it is not for violence.  Religion is about beauty, not malice.  Religion is creativity, not destruction.  Religion is hope, not despair.  Religion mediates God, not evil.  Religion strives to save life, not to kill.

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“Set Free” Luke 13: 10-17

“Set Free”

Luke 13: 10-17

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 22nd, 2010

Where did he touch her?  When Jesus laid his hands on the bent woman to heal her, where did he touch her?  It matters, you know.  Did he place his hands on her back as he stood over her, looking down on her crippled spine, feeling the bow of her brittle bones underneath his fingers?  Did the pressure of his hands add more weight to a back and a life already crippled by weight?  Did he tower over her in order to heal her in a posture that would remind anyone, especially this poor, insignificant, crippled old woman, of his power and authority?  I seriously doubt it.  I mean this is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus didn’t loom over people who were in need of healing.  Jesus didn’t add weight to those already struggling with heavy burdens.  Jesus didn’t use his power and his influence in a way that might make an already suffering woman feel even smaller, even more insignificant, even more oppressed.  No, I don’t think Jesus stood over this bent woman, putting his hands on her back.  I think he got down on his knees, his robes swirling in the dirt, his hair falling in his face as he stooped to meet this stooped woman face to face.  I imagine he had to crane his neck after he got down there so he could look into her eyes.  And then, in this position, I think he reached out and touched her feet…her old, cracked and calloused feet…in order to deliver this miracle, in order to set this woman free.[1]

An amazing thing about this story is that this bent over woman wasn’t even looking for a healing.  She just showed up.  She just happened to appear while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue.  Did she even know Jesus was there?  Did she even know where she was?  I imagine her perspective on the world was seriously limited when all she could see for eighteen years was her feet…her old, cracked, calloused feet.  But then, all of a sudden, Jesus was there, in the dirt, touching those feet, and craning his neck to look into her eyes.

Have you ever known such a moment in your life?  Have you ever had someone go out of his or her way to meet you eye to eye?  To know you?  To get you?  To get your pain and your suffering?

I’ve had such a moment.  Back in the day when I was still seriously afraid of speaking in public I was to be examined on the floor of my presbytery to become a candidate for ministry.  I was really scared.  And as the time for my examination grew closer my fear grew and grew until I knew I was going to just lose it.  So I left the sanctuary where the meeting was being held and found my way to a small chapel.  Once I was alone I cried and cried and cried as I tried to release myself from the tight grip my fear and anxiety had on me.  But I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t release myself from my fear.  And that’s when I felt a little tap on my shoulder.  It was a man who introduced himself to me as an elder from my home church.  I’d never met him before, but he knew who I was and what I was there to do.  He sat down next to me, looked into my eyes and we talked.  I told him about my fear and he understood.  Then he said some things that made me laugh…and that laughter was so healing and so freeing.  It was exactly what I needed to free myself from my fear and get on with what I knew I had to do.

When Jesus went out of his way to meet the bent over woman, to notice her, to recognize her suffering, to stoop to meet her eye to eye, Jesus set her free in more ways than one.  “Woman, you are set free!” he said to her.  And she stood up straight and began praising God.  What a moment!  What a story to celebrate!

But not everyone was celebrating Jesus’ actions that day.  Not everyone approved of this healing.  The leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus would dare to heal someone, would dare to set someone free on the Sabbath.  “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he said, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”

What’s happening here is a disagreement over two Old Testament understandings of the Sabbath.  There are two traditions concerning the Sabbath.  One, recorded in Exodus 20, links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor.  As God rested, this tradition says, so should we rest, as well as our households and even all of our animals.  The second tradition of Sabbath observance is connected to Deuteronomy 5.  This tradition links the Sabbath to the Exodus, to God’s people being released from slavery in Egypt. This tradition links the Sabbath to freedom, liberation, and release from captivity.  And this is the tradition that Jesus taps into as he stops on a Sabbath day in order to set a woman free.  Of course it is permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath, Jesus seems to be saying here, for the Sabbath is all about freedom.[2]

In this way, Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath is more than a religious obligation.  Coming here on Sunday morning is more than just our religious duty, it is more than us following the rules set for us by our ancestors in the faith, by our families, by our parents who sometimes have to drag us here kicking and screaming.  The Sabbath is more than a rule to follow.  Instead it is a reminder that we too are held captive, that we too need to be set free, and that Christ is here to offer us this freedom.  Christ is here, stooping and straining, his knees in the dirt, his eyes trying to catch your gaze, all so he can send you the message that he knows you, he gets you, and he gets your pain.  Christ is here.  He’s here and he has come to set you free.

We know he is here because we can feel him in the warm, welcoming handshake of our neighbor in the pew.

We know he is here because we can see him in the eyes of our friend sitting over there who really gets us, who really understands our pain.

We know he is here because we can feel his Spirit in the music that is sung.

We know he is here because we can taste him in the communion bread and hear his voice echoing through the wine, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We know he is here because the water in the baptismal font whispers to us of new beginnings, of new life, and the freedom we can know if we dive deeply into Him.

The Sabbath reminds us that we are held captive, and that we need to be set free; set free in the Christ who has come here for us.  He has come here for us.  He has come here for all those dying to be set free.  The Sabbath reminds us of this, and it invites us to look around and see who else might still be bound and waiting for their release.  The Sabbath invites us to look around our church, look around our community, look around our world for those who might still be bound and waiting for release.

In a sermon on this text, Jana Childers tells the story of “a little girl who lived in a rural community.  It was just a few years ago, but the girl lived in one of those towns where driving down Center Street is like driving back into the thirties.  She lived in a little house and went to a two-room school.  She had loving parents and, from time to time, a good teacher.  But the way she was growing up was not the way you would want your little girl to grow up.  She had a cleft palate and the money for the repair hadn’t been there.  By the time she was seven-years-old she knew what the world was.  She had heard the phrase, ‘only a mother could love that’ and she understood it.

One day a special teacher visited the school and put the children through some basic speech tests.  When it was her turn, the little girl went into the classroom that had been set aside for the exams.  ‘Just stand over there by the door,’ the teacher said from her desk at the far end of the room.  ‘I want to test your hearing first.  Turn your back, face the door and tell me what you hear me say.’

‘Apple,’ the teacher said in a low voice.

‘Apple,’ the little girl repeated.

‘Man,’ the teacher said.

‘Man,’ the little girl repeated.

‘Banana.’

‘Banana.’

‘Okay,’ the teacher said, ‘Now a sentence.’  The child knew that the sentences were usually fairly easy—she wasn’t the first child to take the test, after all.  She’d heard you could expect something like, ‘The sky is blue’ or ‘Are your shoes brown?’  Still, she listened very carefully.

So it was that standing with her face against the door, she heard the teacher’s whisper quite clearly, ‘I wish you were my little girl.’[3]

Woman, you are set free! And she stood up straight and began praising God. When we come here on the Sabbath we are reminded that Christ has come to set us free; in more ways than one, he has come to set us free. And, as we come here on the Sabbath we are invited to look around and see who else might be bound and waiting for their release.  We are invited to heal, and to love, and to transform the lives of those in need of liberation by being Christ in a world so in need of his healing, liberating love.

Now to the God who sets us free, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving, and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] This image was developed from Jana Childers’ sermon on this passage entitled, “The Kyphotic Woman.”  Found on 30GoodMinutes.org

[2] David Lose, “Sunday, Sunday” posted on WorkingPreacher.org.

[3] Jana Childers, “The Kyphotic Woman,” http://www.30GoodMinutes.org.

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She Was Bent Over

Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. Luke 13:10-13

Where did he touch her?  When Jesus laid his hands on the bent woman to heal her, where did he touch her?  It matters, you know.  Did he place his hands on her back as he stood over her, looking down on her crippled spine, feeling the bow of her brittle bones underneath his fingers?  Did the pressure of his hands add more weight to a back and a life already crippled by weight?  Did he tower over her in order to heal her in a posture that would remind anyone, especially this poor, insignificant, crippled old woman, of his power and authority?  I seriously doubt it.  I mean this is Jesus we’re talking about here.  Jesus didn’t loom over people who were in need of healing.  Jesus didn’t add weight to those already struggling with heavy burdens.  Jesus didn’t use his power and his influence in a way that might make an already suffering woman feel even smaller, even more insignificant, even more oppressed.  No, I don’t think Jesus stood over this bent woman, putting his hands on her back.  I think he got down on his knees, his robes swirling in the dirt, his hair falling in his face as he stooped to meet this stooped woman face to face.  I imagine he had to crane his neck after he got down there so he could look into her eyes.  And then, in this position, I think he must have had to touch her feet…her old, cracked and calloused feet, in order to deliver this miracle, in order to set this woman free.  And by doing so, by touching her in this way, Jesus set her free in more ways than one.[1]

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.


[1] This image was developed from Jana Childers’ sermon on this passage entitled, “The Kyphotic Woman.”  Found on 30GoodMinutes.org

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By Faith–Hebrews 11: 1-3,8-16

We recently discovered “Scaredy Squirrel” by Melanie Watt at our local library.  He’s a very funny squirrel who is very scared of “The Unknown.”  So he served as a wonderful metaphor for those of us who understand that God often calls upon us to take risks and jump into the unknown. Scaredy Squirrel also made for a very fun Children’s Time.  What follows is the sermon from the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

“By Faith”

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

August 1st, 2010

Today’s text requires us to use our imagination.  In today’s text the unknown author of Hebrews recalls how Abraham and Sarah faithfully follow God to an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown way of life.  The text describes this incredibly huge and difficult move by saying simply, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” Surely it could not have been that simple, though.  Surely such a move could not have been as easy as the text makes it sound.  So we need to use our imagination to fill in the gaps and discover why Abraham and Sarah really do deserve to be honored as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham and Sarah struggled when God called them to leave their country and their kindred and their family’s home and follow God into a yet to be seen land.  It’s not difficult to imagine that Abraham and Sarah needed some time to discern whether or not that was really what they wanted to do.  Sure, they were faithful people.  But when God calls you to something risky, even the most faithful need some time to decide whether they have the courage within themselves to make that leap of faith.

So I imagine Abraham and Sarah struggling with this decision.  Do we follow God into the unknown? Or do we stay here on this land that we have always known?  Do we step out in faith?  Or do we stay here where we have been happy and comfortable and secure?  Is it worth the risk?  Is God worth the risk?

I imagine God’s call weighed heavy on them, consuming their thoughts and distracting them from all their every day tasks.  I imagine Abraham getting up in the morning and going through his morning routine, washing his hair, brushing his teeth, combing his beard and then having to repeat the whole process over again because he was so distracted that he couldn’t remember whether he had actually washed his hair, brushed his teeth, and combed his beard.  I imagine Abraham driving his goats home after a long day of shepherding, his head full of thoughts, his head full of all that God had been asking of him…..and then, dog-gone-it, he goes and misses his exit.  Now he has to take the long way home.  I imagine Sarah up in the middle of the night in a fit of stress-induced insomnia.  I imagine her keeping her mind busy by folding the clothes and cleaning their home in the wee hours of the morning and then feeling bone tired when the new day finally arrives.  I imagine the struggle.  I imagine the angst.  I imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have discussed God’s call, foremost in their thoughts, every time they were together.

Yet in the end they decided to take the risk.  This is why they deserve to be hailed as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.  They took the risk and they stepped out in faith in spite of their fear, their discomfort, and their doubt.

Faith brings risk.  Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contract or any legal proof that says all your needs will be met.  Hebrews defines faith as the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is assurance.  Faith is conviction.  But because faith is believing in things not seen, faith is not certainty.  So faith brings risk.  We all know that those who step out in faith, those who follow God’s call, do not always live into happy endings.  Sometimes things just don’t work out.  Sometimes the faithful must face disappointment.

I read a pretty heartbreaking story in the Christian Century this week written by Craig Barnes.  Dr. Barnes teaches at Pittsburgh Seminary and writes to tell the story of one of his students.  “Martha Tidwell,” he writes, “sat before me wearing a blue pants suit and a weary face.  Four years ago she left her high-paying job as an accountant after having discerned, with her church’s help, that she was called by God to begin the process of becoming a pastor.  Her husband, Ted, was supportive and quit his job as well so that they could come to Pittsburgh to begin her studies.

They sold their house at a loss and moved their young family into a seminary apartment.  Although they lived frugally with Ted’s new, lower-paying job, they still had to take on considerable debt.  Over the next three years Martha devoted herself to theological studies while concurrently progressing through the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s lengthy process of discernment.  Finally she graduated with honors and was ready to serve as a pastor.  All she needed was a [church].

But after a year of applications, she hasn’t received even an interview.  The economic pressure is so great that she wonders if she should get another accounting job.  She was neither tearful nor angry as she told me this story,” Barnes writes.  “Mostly she was just confused as she wondered aloud if she and her church had misread the will of God.”[1]

Martha Tidwell’s story is not unique.  There are lots of people who feel called to a certain profession but who cannot find work.  There are lots of people who feel called into marriages and then find themselves facing the heartbreak of divorce.  There are lots of people who feel called to take stands on certain issues and then have to face the disappointment of friends turning their backs.  There are lots of people who feel called to do something, to say something, to be something, to follow God into unknown and risky land, only to find heartbreak, and disappointment, and confusion because things just didn’t work out like they had hoped and believed they would.

Abraham and Sarah’s own story could in fact be told as a story of disappointment.  Our text today says that “all of these (which includes Abraham and Sarah) died in faith without having received the promises.” God blessed Abraham and Sarah with children, with a family, with multitudes of descendents.  But Abraham and Sarah died before God made good on the promise of a homeland and of their people becoming a great nation. Abraham and Sarah lived the life of nomads, moving their tents from one place to the next.  Such a lifestyle certainly could have been a disappointment.  Such a lifestyle certainly could have left them confused and heartbroken and wondering why God had made them leave what they had behind.  “What’s the point of this?”  They could have easily been asking God.  But instead, our text says, those who died in faith without having received the promises saw those promises from a distance and greeted them. In other words they kept on believing.  They kept on hoping.  They kept on in their faith even though it was a faith in things that are not seen.

Not everyone understands faith.  Not everyone understands faith in a God whose promises can often only be seen from a distance.  Faith, for some, is just some overly sentimental delusion that keeps us from facing the realities of life.  Faith, for some, is simply not worth the risk.

But those of us who have taken the risk, those of us who have decided to go with God, go because we have faith that we do not go alone.  We trust that we are not left hanging all alone on this adventure of faith.  We trust that God is with us, just like God was with Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Jesus.  The author of Hebrews reminds us today that the faith of those who have gone before us is a trustworthy faith and the God of those who have gone before us is a trustworthy God.  So we persist in faith even when the job doesn’t come.  We persist in faith even when our marriages break.  We persist in faith when we lose someone to death.  We persist in faith when we face challenges and situations that keep us up at night with worry and make us miss our exit on the drive home.  We persist in faith, not to delude ourselves from the realities of life, but to face them, head on, with hope, and conviction, and assurance that a better day, a new day is on the horizon, a better day, a new day is to come, a better day, a new day can be seen from the distance and can be greeted by all of God’s children.

And so we carry on by faith.  We move forward by faith.  We face our disappointment by faith.  We live through our heartache by faith.  We sort through our confusion by faith.  We risk everything and follow God by faith.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith brings risk.  Faith is not certainty.  Faith does not always lead us to the happy ending in this life.  But faith does keep our eyes tuned to the horizon.  Faith keeps our head up in hope, because we know that although God calls upon us to take the risk that comes with faith, God takes an even greater risk on us.  God takes an even greater risk in loving us fearful, hesitant human beings prone more to wander than to follow our Creator’s path.

God is willing to take a risk on us.  God is willing to step out in faith for us.  God is willing to sacrifice for us.  Such a God deserves the same from us.  Such a God is worthy of our faith and the risks that faith brings.

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] M. Craig Barnes, “Cloud and Fire”, The Christian Century, July 27, 2010, pg. 35.

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Faith brings Risk

I am preaching on Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 this Sunday in which the author recalls the story of Abraham and Sarah who faithfully follow God into an unknown place, an unknown people, and an unknown way of life.  About this incredibly huge and difficult move the text simply says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” This is one of those stories that requires us to use our imagination and read between the lines.  Because such a move, such a leap of faith on Abraham and Sarah’s part, could not have been as simple and as easy as the text makes it sound.

In fact, I imagine Abraham and Sarah really struggled with their decision.  Do we follow God into the unknown? Or do we stay here on this land that we have always known?  Do we step out in faith?  Or do we stay here where we have been happy and comfortable and secure?  Is it worth the risk?  Is God worth the risk?

I imagine the decision plagued Abraham and Sarah and consumed their thoughts.  I imagine Abraham getting up in the morning and going through his morning routine, washing his hair, brushing his teeth, combing his beard and then having to repeat the whole process over again because he was so distracted that he couldn’t remember whether he had actually washed his hair, brushed his teeth, and combed his beard.  I imagine Abraham driving his goats home after a days worth of shepherding, his head full of thoughts…..and then missing his exit—he just wasn’t thinking, he was so distracted—

and now he has to take the long way home.  I imagine Sarah up in the middle of the night in a fit of insomnia over the whole thing.  I imagine her folding the clothes and cleaning their home in the wee hours of the morning and then feeling just bone tired when the new day finally arrives.  I imagine the struggle.  I imagine the angst.  I imagine how Abraham and Sarah must have discussed God’s call, foremost in their thoughts, every time they were together.

Yet in the end they decided to take the risk.  This is why they deserve to be hailed as heroes of the faith in the book of Hebrews.  They took the risk and they stepped out in faith in spite of their fear, their discomfort, and their doubt.

Faith brings risk.  Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contract or any legal proof that says all your needs will be met.  Faith means following God on the basis of a promise; a promise that God will be God, no matter what happens.  And that, no matter what happens, God will be with you.  So is it worth it?  Is God worth it?  Will you take the risk?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart, be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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Distracted by Many Things–Luke 10: 38-42

It felt great to get back into the pulpit after two weeks of vacation.  Although it is a bear to write a sermon week in and week out, I miss the rhythm of it when I am away.  I miss the spiritual rhythm and practice of giving Jesus my full attention.  What follows is the sermon from the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

“Distracted by Many Things”

Luke 10: 38-42

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

July 18th, 2010

Imagine with me, if you will, that your spouse has just run into Jesus at the local Piggly Wiggly and invited him to your house for dinner tonight.  Knowing that this is a big deal, Jesus coming for dinner and all, your spouse appropriately calls you on the way home to give you a heads up.

Hi, honey, guess who I ran into at the store?  It was our old friend Jesus.  He was passing through town on his way to install an air conditioner unit in a friend’s mobile home.  I think he just needed a cold drink before heading out into this heat.  And well, anyways, we got to talking and I remembered what a great guy he is…so I just invited him over for dinner tonight.  Hope that’s okay with you.  He really seemed to appreciate the invitation.  What’s that? What time is he coming?  Oh…I guess around 6 or so.

You check your watch….it’s a quarter to 5.  Jesus will be in your home, sitting at your dining room table, eating your food, drinking your wine, and making conversation with your family in a little over an hour.

So what do you do?  How do you prepare?  How will you host the Savior of the world?

Would you run around frantically cleaning and shoving clutter into drawers and under beds?   Would you suddenly notice all the spots on your glassware and all the stains on your rugs that certainly aren’t good enough for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  And as you are cleaning and worrying and wondering if your home will be good enough, would you start to wonder if you are good enough to host Jesus?  So would you go in search of that 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch someone gave your for your wedding and hang it in a prominent place?  Would you dust off the old family bible and leave it casually opened on your coffee table?  Would you pull out all the crafts your kids made at VBS and arrange them as if they were still prized possessions?  Would you go through your home and pitch all your trendy magazines and all your romance novels and replace them with devotionals, and prayer cards, and maybe even something heavier…like the Book of Confessions?  What would you do if Jesus was coming to your place in a little over an hour?

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part.

Lots of people have struggled with this story from the Gospel of Luke.  It doesn’t seem fair of Jesus to take Mary’s side who has left Martha to do all the work.   It doesn’t seem fair of Jesus to ignore all of the hard work that hospitality requires.  I mean, c’mon Jesus, somebody has to cook the dinner, and set the table, and wash the dishes.  Somebody has to make sure the house is presentable, and the kids’ faces are clean, and the dog has been put out.  If Martha had ignored her many tasks, if Martha had wiled all of her time away sitting at Jesus’ feet like Mary, then Jesus would have gone home hungry.  And–as all you folks trained in Southern hospitality know– you never let your guest go home hungry.

So why is Jesus so hard on Martha?  Why does he say that Mary has chosen the better part?  The story that precedes this is Jesus telling the lawyer that he needs to go and do good, just like the Good Samaritan has done good.  Aren’t we supposed to be doers of the Word?  Aren’t we supposed to be people of action?  So why has Mary done better here?

Hospitality was very important in Jesus’ day.  So I believe that Jesus appreciated all of Martha’s hard work, I believe he appreciated what it takes to make someone feel truly welcome.  But in Martha’s welcome, in Martha’s hospitality, there was one crucial missing ingredient.  She did do lots of things.  But in all her doing, in all her busyness, and distractedness, and worrying, Martha didn’t pay attention to her guest.  A warm meal and a comfortable place to rest are wonderful but true hospitality means giving someone your full attention.

I’m sure we have all entered a conversation with someone who, after the conversation has started, you realize that that person is not all there.  That her mind is elsewhere, that she is distracted and that she is only pretending to be interested in you and in what you have to say.  Remember those conversations?  They don’t feel good, do they?  They don’t leave you feeling appreciated, or respected, or welcomed.  And that’s because they are inhospitable.  True hospitality means giving someone your full attention.  And this is what Martha failed to offer Jesus.

Which is odd seeing as Martha certainly would have understood the rules of hospitality. She too was living in a society and a culture where hospitality was of the utmost importance.  So why did Martha ignore her guest?  Why did she allow herself to get so distracted?  Why was she only half-listening when Jesus spoke?

Well, I think part of the answer lies in Martha’s own fear.  Jesus was sitting and talking to Mary in what was obviously a very intimate conversation.  Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening intently to everything her Savior was saying.  And Jesus, no doubt, was also directing all his attention to this beautiful woman at his feet, to this beautiful woman who had not only welcomed him into her home, but also into her mind and into her heart and into her life.  Mary and Jesus were fully wrapped up into one another.  And this, I believe, frightened Martha.  It frightened her to get that close to Jesus.  It frightened her to have all of Jesus’ attention fall on her.  It frightened her to be known by Jesus in such an intimate, close conversation, because Martha knew that she wasn’t good enough for Jesus.  So she avoided him.  She distracted herself from the whole situation.  She worried herself over the food that she was serving and over the house that she could never get clean enough.  She fussed over little things like the 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch that just never would hang straight and the bibles that always looked so dusty and unread.

Small talk is an interesting thing.  We make small talk when we don’t have the energy, or the time, or the interest in making ‘big’ talk….or real talk….I’d prefer to say.  Real talk delves deep.  Real talk allows us to really get to know each other.  Real talk brings us close.  Oftentimes I believe our spiritual lives and our relationship with Jesus amounts to a bunch of small talk.  We go to church, but our minds are sometimes elsewhere.  We offer up prayers to God, but we are only half-listening.  We do the right thing and we live good lives, but we don’t let Jesus come too close.  We don’t sit at Jesus’ feet and offer him our full attention.  Why? Well perhaps because we know that we aren’t good enough for Jesus either. And perhaps because we’re afraid that once Jesus gets a load of who we really are, once Jesus trains his attention on the real me, then he won’t be interested in coming around anymore.  So we avoid Jesus.  We distract ourselves and we worry ourselves with many things.

And the truth of the matter is that our fears are justified because we aren’t good enough for Jesus. We aren’t.  But Jesus comes anyway.  Jesus comes and gives us his full attention.  Jesus comes to us and welcomes us and offers us his hospitality, because even though we aren’t good enough he loves us anyway and he wants more from us than just a bunch of small talk.

I think the other reason why Martha didn’t offer Jesus her full attention was because Martha didn’t trust that Jesus really had anything for her.  Sure she’d heard all the stories of healings, and exorcisms, and miracles.  But what could Jesus do for her?  What could he possibly offer her?

We might think Martha is crazy for thinking this.  It would be crazy to think that a man whom you actually knew could heal people and perform miracles had nothing to offer you.  But she must have doubted.  She must have lacked in faith, or else she would have paid more attention to Jesus.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Martha, though, because I / we too often don’t trust or believe that Jesus has much to offer us either.  Sure, Jesus is great and all, but he isn’t a magician.  He can’t make all our troubles go away.  He can’t pay our bills or find us that great job or keep bad people away from our children.  Jesus can’t do all the paperwork that has piled up on my desk.  Jesus can’t get rid of that boss that I hate. Jesus can’t fix my relationship with my spouse or my friend.  Jesus can’t make my painful arthritis go away or bring back my loved one whose loss I am grieving terribly.  Jesus doesn’t have much to offer me.  Jesus doesn’t have what I really need.  So I give him some of my attention.  I mean he certainly deserves some of my attention.  But I don’t give him my full attention.

But, again, Jesus gives us his.  Jesus gives us his full attention.  Because apparently he has something he wants to give us that we’re just not getting.  Apparently he has something to give us that he thinks is worth our time and our attention.

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Yes, Jesus is not a magician.  Yes, Jesus can’t solve all of our problems.  But by sitting at Jesus’ feet and offering him our full attention we will choose what is better.  We will choose what is better than all that is worrying us and distracting us.  We will choose what is better than all of our fears and all of our small talk.  We will choose what is better than all of our grief, and all of our pain, and all of our hell on earth.  By sitting at Jesus’ feet and offering him our full attention we will choose what is better.  Because by sitting at Jesus’ feet we sit in the presence of a peace that passes all understanding, we sit and receive words of truth and words of challenge said with care, we sit and focus not on the things of the world but on the things from above, we sit and receive an understanding of our own significance, we sit and receive a vision of hope, not of despair.  When we sit at Jesus’ feet and offer him our full attention we choose that which is better.  And according to God’s Word to us today, that which is better, that which Jesus offers, will not be taken away from us.

Now to the God of all that is better be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Distracted by Many Things

I am preaching on the Gospel text from Luke this Sunday.  It’s the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha.  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens.  Martha runs around the house, busying herself with many tasks, until Jesus finally says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Imagine Jesus has just been invited to your home for dinner on short notice.  Take a look around.  Are you ready for Jesus?  Or would you make some changes?  Would you run around frantically cleaning and shoving clutter into drawers and closets?   Would you suddenly notice all the spots on your glassware and all the stains on your rugs that certainly aren’t good enough for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?  And as you are cleaning and worrying and wondering if your home will be good enough, would you start to wonder if you are good enough to host Jesus?  So would you go in search of that 1 Corinthians 13 cross-stitch someone gave your for your wedding and hang it in a prominent place where Jesus might notice?  Would you dust off the old family bible and leave it casually opened on your coffee table?  Would you pull out all the crafts your kids made at VBS and arrange them as if they were still prized possessions?  Would you go through your home and pitch all your trendy magazines and all your romance novels and replace them with devotionals, and prayer cards, and maybe even something heavier…like the Book of Confessions?

What would you do if Jesus was coming to your home, to your private space, to your personal haven?  Could you let go of all worry and simply sit at Jesus’ feet?  Or would you be distracted by many things?

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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