Cut and Paste

Mark 8:31-38

I ran across an interesting podcast recently (Podcasts are like articles in a newspaper or magazine, just in audio form that you can download to your computer or iPod or other listening device of choice). Well the podcast is a series called, “Stuff you missed in history class,” and this particular podcast dealt with Thomas Jefferson’s Bible.

Jefferson was indeed a man of faith, but his faith differed from traditional or orthodox Christianity. Jefferson, a product of his Age, was shaped by the Enlightenment, and his faith was, at the very least, strongly influenced by Deism, the idea that God created the universe like a clockmaker creates a clock. The clockmaker creates the clock and then steps back to let the clock runs on its own. In the same way, God, according to Deism, created the universe to run on its own, and doesn’t intervene in human affairs or world affairs. It is a hands off portrayal of the divine. Reason discerns how the clock runs, and is the best way to order human life.

Well, if you believe that, then you are going to have a problem with much of the Bible. In fact, though Jefferson respected Jesus as the greatest philosopher who ever lived, he had a big problem with the gospel writers–those unenlightened, uneducated fishermen whom he believed had remembered things all wrong, and added all sorts of extra stuff after Jesus’ death.

Well, Jefferson literally sat down with a couple copies of the bible and a pair of scissors. Sitting at a table, he literally cut out the verses that he thought were legitimate, and pasted them into what would become his own version of the Bible.

Left behind on the table were all of the miracles, all of the extraneous doctrine, and all of the stories of God breaking into the natural order and changing things–like the virgin birth, all the miraculous healings and feedings, and, oh ya, the resurrection. What was left in Jefferson’s bible was Jesus the philosopher, Jesus the moralist. What do you know? Jesus ended up looking a lot like Thomas Jefferson!

It’s easy to judge Tom on this, but as I reflected on our verses from Scripture in light of that podcast, I realized that Peter, in this morning’s text, tries to do the same thing. Just before our verses, in a flash of insight Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah. Wow, that’s great. Messiah is here! Glory! Victory! Kicking the Romans out of Israel, bringing justice and peace! And I’m in on it! This is how Peter sees Jesus as messiah

But Jesus has other ideas.

As soon as the disciples begin to understand that Jesus is indeed the messiah, he begins to tell them and show them the kind of messiah he came to be: not the kind that would lead an army to victory, not the kind that would sit on Herod’s throne and wield great power, but the kind who would ride into the capital on a donkey, who would give himself up to his enemies, and who would die in defeat and humiliation, before rising again.

This didn’t match Peter’s image of messiah. This didn’t fit with his love for Jesus. He wanted to leave that last part out, the part about suffering and dieing. Like Thomas Jefferson did with a pair of scissors, Peter tried to do with a rebuke. Shhh! Jesus. What are you nuts? Don’t talk like that Jesus. It can’t happen that way.

But Jesus has other ideas. He came to heal and bring change in God’s way and not our way.

It’s easy to judge Peter and Tom for this, but you know what, I do the same thing, and maybe you do too. I’ll even go further than that. While many of us would feel funny about actually cutting up a bible, I would suggest that we all do the same thing, whether we are orthodox or progressive, conservative or liberal. In fact, with computers, cutting and pasting is a lot easier these days.

Truth is, we all do that. In our humanness, we cannot grasp the complete picture, so we cut and paste as best we can to create a workable, reasonable, doable, beneficial faith.
When we go to the Bible, when we go to church, when we think about our approach to life and faith, we tend to pick and choose the things we like, the things we agree with, the things that fit. We cut them out and paste them into our faith, and we leave the rest of the stuff lying on the table. I like that part! I don’t like that. I will participate in that, but not that. That church is bible believing, and that church is not. We cut and paste away.

You know, if I had a pair of scissors on the gospel, I would cut out the cross and the suffering. Let me be a little more precise. Perhaps I would leave in the cross for Jesus, along with the resurrection. But when it comes to picking up my own cross: snip, snip, snip.

I don’t want to include that. I can include what Jesus does for me in my faith, and in fact this is the foundation of everything that follows, but when it comes to what I have to do for him, when it comes to losing my life for the sake of the gospel, when it comes to my cross, those scissors start a cuttin’.

The cross, you see, was an instrument of death, and a particularly cruel form of death — because it was slow and agonizing. The one hanging from the cross died of suffocation.

The cross was also an instrument of oppression and power. It was a way of utterly humiliating and shaming the victim and showing the world who was really in charge.

Those who were put up on the cross did not survive. The cross meant the end — the end of their ability to determine their own future, the end of their power to control their destiny, the end of whatever they thought they would be able to accomplish on their own. Do you see why I would want to leave that out?

Then we come to Lent, and Lent invites us to discover the truth that you can’t have resurrection without dying first. We discover that to pick up our cross means to let go of everything else.

It invites us to pick up our cross, that is to say, to let go of the illusion that we can go it alone, to let go of the fiction that we can make everything ok on our own, to let go of the pride that seeks to control our days, our relationships, our careers, our environment, our purchasing habits, and anything else we can get our hands on. The invitation to pick up our cross is the invitation to put our lives completely in God’s hands.

It is when we face our own limitations, our own fears and brokenness, our own powerlessness, that we can begin to discover the power of God–who turns defeat into victory, suffering into redemption, and death into life.

Lent invites us to the discovery that a life of following Jesus is not about cutting and pasting our faith. It is about the hard, hard task, of allowing God to shape and change us.

We celebrate Lent every year, over and over again because we have a tendency to resist. We lash out. We struggle to retain control. Even when we are suffering because we are alone, we resist giving God control, and allowing God to love us. We don’t want a cross.

Rather than pick up our cross, we’d rather cling tightly to our own agendas, our own ideologies, our own defense mechanisms. We’d rather control our relationships, our resources, and hold on for dear life even to our grief, our addiction, our deep hurts.

The good news is that Jesus comes anyway, even though we resist. The good news is that God continues to love and care for us until that time as we are all healed and whole.

I am not talking about interpretations of this text or that. I am not talking about one issue or perspective over another. I am not talking about allowing God to help us be better versions of the people we want to be. I am talking about putting our lives wholly, completely in God’s hands. And then seeing what happens.

Let me tell you a story. I think this story originated with that great story-telling preacher, Dr. Fred Craddock.

A family is out for a Sunday afternoon drive, and, suddenly, the two children in the back seat begin to beat their father on the back. “Daddy, stop the car. There’s a kitten on the side of the road.” “So?” said the father. “Well, if we don’t pick it up, it might die.” “Well, then it will just have to die. We don’t have room for another animal. Our house is already like a zoo.” And the father kept on driving as the children murmur to each other in the back seat: “We never thought our daddy would be so mean and cruel and let a kitten die.”

The mother finally intervenes. “Dear, you will have to stop the car.” He turns the car around and goes back to the spot and pulls off the road. “You kids stay in the car now.” And he goes to pick up the kitten. The poor creature is just skin and bones, sore-eyed, and full of fleas; but when he reaches down to pick it up, with its last bit of energy the kitten bristles, baring tooth and claw. Sst! It scratches the Father’s hands. He picks up the kitten by the loose skin at the neck, brings it over to the car and says, “Don’t touch it; its probably got leprosy.” Back home they go. When they get to the house, the children give the kitten several baths, warm milk, and intercede: “Can we let it stay in the house just for tonight? Tomorrow we’ll fix a place in the garage.” The father says, “Sure, take my bedroom; the whole house is already a zoo.” The children fix a comfortable bed fit for a pharaoh.
Several weeks pass. Then one day the father walks in the back door and feels something rub against his leg. He looks down and there is the kitten. He reaches down toward the cat, carefully checking to see that nobody is watching. When the cat sees his hand, it does not bare its claws and hiss; instead it arches its back to receive a caress.

Is that the same cat? Not really. It’s not the same frightened and hurt kitten on the side of the road. When you place yourself completely in God’s hands, you are never the same cat.

We have all known times when we were wild, dirty, angry, or unlovely, and God reached down and blessed us any way. I will not try to name the ways in which God has reached down to touch us. There are too many. But, there is one thing we have all seen if we looked closely when God reached down to us. There were scratches on God’s hands.

This is the story of Lent. This is the story of God’s love that will never let us go. Amen.

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  • After all this time…

    Well, this is it my fellow followers of Jesus, we are returning to in-person worship at First Presbyterian Church. It has been fourteen long months of us learning to be a worshiping community in the best ways we could figure out (thank you Jesus, even for things like YouTube and Zoom). It’s been challenging for me as your pastor (I imagine Pastor Meg would say the same). It’s been challenging for all of you in faith and life and with family and friends. 

    But we’re going back to church, praise the Lord.

    Many things seem to be happening in our world at this moment. How are you handling it all? We’re opening the church doors again. There was a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. Many of you have your Covid-19 vaccinations. It’s Springtime and the tulips are starting to bloom. The Sandhill Cranes and other migratory birds are back in the valley. So how are we doing as we process all of this? How are you doing?

    Relief? Sorrow? Joy? Sadness? 

    All of the above?

    I’ve heard several phrases of late, including ‘pandemic pain.’ I’ve felt fatigued myself. But having received the vaccination shots, I am ready to be back in our church building with you praising the Lord together. With high vaccination rates among our church members and several safety precautions, Session has voted for our return to in-person worship. Details are listed in another article inside this edition, but our first Sunday back will be Sunday, May 9th, with our regular service times of 9 & 11 a.m.

    This worldwide pandemic is not over. Not by a long shot as I watch the news from places like India and Brazil, or even Michigan. But many of us have received our vaccinations and we are implementing some practices that should allow us to worship the Lord together, safely. And to be clear (I cannot say this enough), if you do not feel safe coming to church in the near future, please continue to worship from home. I will do my absolute best to make sure our worship live-stream allows you to connect with God and connect with the rest of us from the safety of your own home. We have purchased a small and simple (yet high quality) camera that will live-stream Sunday morning worship directly to YouTube. You have the option to watch it ‘live’ as we are worshiping or watch it at a later time that is more convenient for you.

    So, what might we expect on Sunday mornings in May when we go back? First and foremost, we will be together singing, praying, and praising the Lord. Hallelujah! There will be a few changes, of course. We ask that everyone wear a mask while in the building. We will not have indoor fellowship to prevent ‘grouping’ around the food. Both services will be in Bruner Hall (this is to allow for social distancing). We will initially space chairs out in groups of one, two, three, four, etc. (please find a group of chairs that matches your household). Our air handling system will be on during the service. We won’t use hymnals so that multiple people aren’t touching them each morning (lyrics will be in the bulletin and projected onto the wall). And finally, if you are feeling under the weather, we ask that you please be extra-considerate of your fellow worshipers and remain home.

    Every day of life is a new endeavor. The same is true for us in this process of returning to worship. May we prayerfully and carefully take actions that promote good community health, along with our spiritual health. Thank you for your patience with us, and I look forward to seeing every one of you, whenever that might be.

    —Pastor Derek

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