Keeping Up Appearances


Sermon 10-21-18


Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45


One of my favorite characters from all of British Television is Hyacinth Bucket. That’s spelled B-U-C-K-E-T, Bucket. Hyacinth is the star of a show called Keeping Up Appearances, and that title tells you almost everything you need to know about Hyacinth: her life is about appearances.


Hyacinth comes from a very humble background; she grew up poor and rather unsophisticated and her singular mission in life is to get as far away from her humble beginnings as she can get. Hyacinth wants to mingle and rub elbows with the aristocracy. She wants people to think that she is cultured and erudite and well bred. Most importantly Hyacinth wants people to think that she has money. Hyacinth has three sisters, but the only one she will speak of publicly is her sister Violet, the one with the swimming pool, sauna and room for a pony.


I was just watching an episode recently, where Hyacinth was excited that her husband gave her a home security system for their anniversary. She wasn’t excited because she was worried about her stuff being stolen; she was excited because now the neighbors might think she had stuff worth stealing. As the title implies, with Hyacinth, it’s all about appearances. If she can’t be rich, at least she wants to appear rich.


I love Hyacinth Bucket, but like the rest of the characters in the show, I wouldn’t want to live next to her. I love her, because I think I understand her, at least I understand the temptation to be her. I think it is great for people to want to improve themselves: to improve their education, their situation, their skills, their habits, their morals even. I share those desires. But the problem with Hyacinth is that appearances mean more to her than reality. She doesn’t understand that appearing great and actually being great are two very different things; and her obsession with appearing rich, sophisticated, well-connected, influential, virtuous and otherwise perfect is always drawing attention to just how far away from those ideals she really is.


Appearing great and being great are not the same thing. It’s a lesson that Hyacinth never learns.

It’s a lesson a lot of people never learn.


Two of Jesus’s followers, James and John, two brothers from a humble background, they have a special request for Jesus. You may remember that when Jesus first met James and John they were in the boat with their father Zebedee mending their nets. When Jesus called they quickly got up and followed him, leaving their father behind. Well now James and John they have a special request for Jesus. When Jesus finally comes into his kingdom, they want to be seen on either side of him, one on his left and one on his right. They want to be seen at the head table. They want people to see that they are close to Jesus. To be on either side of Jesus, that is the most visible place in the room. If they are seen there, then people will think that they are great, just like Jesus. There’s just one problem with their request: appearing great and being great are not the same thing.


In fact, in Jesus’s kingdom, appearances don’t count for much at all. Jesus didn’t come into this world to appear holy. He didn’t appear to pray; he didn’t appear to care for the sick or the poor; he didn’t appear to forgive sins; he didn’t appear to serve others. He didn’t appear to suffer and die; he didn’t appear to rise again. He didn’t appear to do any of those things, he did them. Jesus didn’t appear great, he was great.

Appearing great, and being great are not the same thing. Jesus was great.

We are not great. We can and should try to improve ourselves; we should seek to grow in wisdom and virtue; we should try to serve others as Jesus instructed us to do, but we must accept that we are not truly good or great, not like he was. Pretending to be otherwise only highlights how far we are from Jesus, not our closeness to him. Our lives are tainted with sin. All of our lives, even the most noble among us. We are not great. That is what makes Jesus’s willingness to bear our sins and burdens such an astounding thing: We are not great, we are ignorant and wayward, and yet our great high priest still deals gently with us. In the end, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross in his moment of ultimate sacrifice, the two individuals closest to him, the one on his right hand and the one on his left, were two sinners; criminals that Jesus died to save. And to the one that admits that he is not great and in need of Jesus’s mercy, that is the one that Jesus invites into paradise.


Jesus knew that James and John were a mess when he called them. Jesus knows what a mess all of us are when he calls us to follow him. He knows that we’re not that great. And yet he calls us, and is willing to die for us anyways. We are always going to be tempted with appearing great though. There will always be this voice in our heads saying: “If people see you sitting next to Jesus, maybe they won’t notice what a sinner you are. Maybe they will think you are great too.” We tell ourselves: as long as people think I’m great, they won’t realize what a mess I truly am. Maybe I’ll forget too.


It’s a dangerous temptation. Anytime the church as an institution, or we as individuals opt for keeping up appearances, rather than being real, and getting dirty with Jesus in the messy world of real service and sacrifice, we risk doing great damage. We have done great damage. Hyacinth is loveable and benign, but make no mistake, caring more about appearances than truth is a dangerous game. Wanting to be seen next to Jesus, without actually wanting to serve him, is the devil’s playground.


Jesus called two humble fishermen to follow him, he knew who James and John were when he called them. Getting prime seating at the banquet, or getting a good selfie with Jesus, is not going to change who they are. Their request to be seen next to Jesus, only highlights how far away from him they actually are. Jesus did not come into the world to create a phony public relations campaign; he came to offer himself as a true servant and a real sacrifice for real sinners. Appearances don’t count much for Jesus.


Hyacinth proves it over and over again: the more you try to keep up appearances, the more you prove how far you truly are from being the real thing.

Not a teacher, but a savior


Sermon for October 14th, 2018


Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

You lack one thing.


That is what Jesus said to the man with many possessions: You lack one thing.


We don’t know much about this man. We know that he was a good man by most standards; he kept the commandments, or at least he says that he did. I suspect that he probably has broken some here and there. I am inclined to think that anyone who says they’ve never done anything wrong is either Jesus or delusional. But still, this man, he’s probably a decent human being. He’s very respectful to Jesus as a good teacher; he’s humble and kneels before him. We know that he has been somewhat successful in life, because he has many possessions. And we know that Jesus loves him. The bible tells us so.


But despite all of that we also know that something is missing in his life. This man lacks one thing. Deep down I suspect that he knows it. Why else would he go running up to Jesus asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life? If he had been confident that he had it all and had it all worked out, he wouldn’t have gone chasing after this Jesus. But he does. Something inside him keeps telling him that there is more. There is more to be had; there is more to be done. There is something missing in his life and his soul is restless until he can find it. There is a hole in his life that he is looking to fill.


Now I suspect that this man has been trying to find this one thing that he lacks for a very long time. Fortunately for him, he has been somewhat successful in life. He has had the luxury of seeking fulfillment in things. He has the money and the means to acquire possessions. Other, less fortunate, souls might have had to try to fill the hole with food, or wine, or drugs, or sex, or violence; but not this man, he has the great fortune of having wealth. And with that wealth he has tried to fill the void in his life; he’s gotten pretty good at it, but deep down, something is still missing. There is one thing he lacks: a living relationship with God.


Now make no mistake, this man has a relationship with the law; he has a relationship with the teachings of God; with the commandments. And by his account it is a good relationship; he says he’s never broken them, but I can’t help wondering: what if he’s not quite right about that? What if his relationship with God’s law isn’t as pristine as he makes it out to be? It seems to me that this man has two options: either he can try to convince himself that he has the power, the skill, the resources and the righteousness to achieve eternal life on his own (he can try to convince himself that he is good), or he can admit that forgiveness, salvation and eternal life are things that he cannot attain by himself; they are things that he can only receive as a gift. He can admit that only God can fill that empty space in his soul through an act of mercy.


This man wants a teacher, but what he needs is a savior. He wants a God that he can own just like all of his other possessions, not a God that owns him. He wants eternal life, but he is so used to being in control of his earthly life that he thinks the Kingdom of God is something that he will attain by his good choices. He says: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do? He thinks that eternal life is something that he is going to win for himself. He can’t imagine that it is something that is going to be given to him as a gift, because of something that God did in Jesus Christ. He still thinks that he can save himself.


And here’s the saddest part of this story: this man walks away from Jesus. He only lacks one thing. It is the thing that he has been searching for his whole life. It is the hole that he has been trying to fill through good works and through material possessions. Here it is at last right in front of him, and he can’t have it, because it isn’t something he can buy, and it isn’t something he can do. It is someone that he must follow. It is a gift that he must be able to receive. It’s not a teacher; it’s a savior.


People hear this story and they get caught up on Jesus asking the man to give away his money and possessions, they get hung up on that, but I don’t think that is the hardest thing that Jesus asks this man to give up. Jesus is also asking this man to give up his sense of self-righteousness. He’s asking him to give up control over his life. He’s asking him to give up on the idea that he can save himself. Those things are even harder to let go of than money.


Even in church, I can’t tell you how often I hear Christians talking about what we doing in the world and how we are following God’s commandments and doing all this work to build God’s Kingdom, and not talking about what God has done for us. You think it’s hard to get people to let go of their money? Try getting them to let go of their self-righteousness. It is hard to get people to let go of money and possessions, but it is even harder to get them to let go of trying to save themselves.


But if you can, if you can let go of trying to save yourself, letting go of everything else gets a lot easier. When you realize that the god-shaped hole in your life can only be filled by a relationship with God, trying to fill it with more stuff becomes less tempting. When you realize that the size of your bank account doesn’t impress Jesus as much as how you live your life and how closely you follow him, then it becomes easier to invest in the things that really matter. When you realize that salvation comes from God alone, trying to hold on to anything but God seems really pointless. When you realize and accept that only God is truly good, then you will realize that all that self-righteous talk is just a bunch of hot air.


Our life as Christians is meant to be a response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. A response. We cannot buy eternal life, or buy our salvation, or buy goodness. We can only respond to what God has already done for us and to Jesus’s call to follow him. I expect that that response will mean that we will feel called to leave some things behind in this world. I expect that we will want to follow God’s commandments as best we can, not because we think we are all that good, but because he has shown such love to us that he will forgive us, even when we break them. I expect that we will feel called to let go of some of our stuff too, including yes, our money. I expect that we will willingly and gladly sacrifice from our own goods and possessions, because we will recognize the supreme and ultimate value of his sacrifice. We have seen the goodness of God. Now our life of faith is meant to be a response to that. We have found the one thing we lack and it isn’t a teacher, it’s a savior.


Is it hard to follow Jesus and let go of your self-righteousness, and your control, and even your possessions? You bet. But entering the Kingdom of God on your own…well, that’s impossible.




Are we working for union or division?


Sermon for October 7th, 2018


Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

It is not good that man should be alone. That is what God declares after shaping Adam from the dust of the earth. It is not good that man should be alone. Our Bible begins with the book of Genesis and the book of Genesis begins with the story of how God created the heavens and the earth and all the animals on the earth. And after God created each thing he declares that: “it is good.” But here for the first time God declares that something is: “not good.” Everything that God created is good, but for this last creature, the creature formed in the image of God, there is something that is not good and that is to have a solitary existence, to be alone. Man needs a partner. None of the other animals that God has created are suitable as a partner for Adam; they are all too different. As much as Adam may love all the dogs and the cats and the monkeys, he can’t experience real companionship with them, not really, because he doesn’t see them as equals. Adam has not yet met his match.


So God causes a deep sleep to come over Adam and he takes a part of him, a piece from his side, and he crafts that into woman, Eve. And when Adam sees the woman he says: “at last! bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh. This is the missing piece of me.” This was not an inferior animal, but an equal partner and companion. They were not to be in competition with each other but were to come together and work as one. Two separate souls that recognize in each other a missing part of themselves. Two individuals that can stand before each other naked and unashamed.


That is Genesis chapter 2 and what a wonderful world it would be if the story of humanity just stopped there. But it doesn’t. We know that that is not the world that we live in now. Genesis has a chapter 3. And in chapter 3 the world we now know comes in like a bolt of lightening: Adam and Eve are tricked into trusting the serpent more than they trust God. They disobey God and their relationship with God, and with each other changes forever. Women and men start blaming each other and resenting each other; equality is gone, shame and domination enter in; competition and jealousy enter in, and not just between men and women. Brother will rise up against brother, tribes and nations will form and they will be set against each other. Women and children will become property; relationships will become transactions and business arrangements. In the beginning, God recognized our need for partnership and companionship and love, God recognized that we needed to be joined together, but our own sinful desires tore us apart. God wanted union, but what we decided to pursue instead was division.


We still live in that fallen world. We live in the world of Genesis chapter 3. There is no denying that or getting around it. From almost the beginning of human history, our relationships have not been exactly as God designed and desired them to be. People talk about how marriage has been redefined lately, but I’ve got news for you, we have been redefining marriage for a very long time, all the way back to when Adam first blamed Eve for his bad choices. We live in a world of hardened hearts. We live in a world of abuse and inequality and pain and brokenness. We live in a world where it is easier to divide people than it is to join them together. We cannot pretend to be living in the Garden of Eden anymore, because we no longer live in that world.


None of our relationships are exactly as God intended and created them to be. Not one of them. Not our relationships with our spouses, not our relationships with our parents or our brothers and sisters, not our relationships with our neighbors. There is not one relationship in your life that is not in some way stained by human sinfulness. And sin is divisive. Sin likes to add division to division, always pushing people further and further away from each other. For thousands of years people have been divided over whether divorce is possible and on what grounds. People today have divided opinions about what does or does not constitute a marriage. We live in a divided world and we have for a very long time, and the divisions keep multiplying.


The questions for us, as people who worship a god that has declared partnership and companionship good, and division and separation not good, is: “what side are we actively working for?” Are we working for union or division? In word and thought and deed, are we working to draw people together, or are we working to further divide them? If someone has gone through a painful divorce do we remind them that Christ knows the pain of being broken and hurt? Do we tell them that his forgiveness is greater than our sinfulness? Or do we add division to division driving them further away from the community? Should we deny communion to the people who probably most need to be reminded of the unifying power of God’s love? Lord, I hope not.


We are called, as Christians, to bring people to Jesus, not to stop them. We don’t have to call divorce good to recognize that sometimes it might be the least worst option. It could be better than forcing people to live in toxic or abusive relationships that just lead to further division and worse pain. Since Genesis chapter 3, division exists in our world, we can’t get away from it, but we don’t have to work for it; we don’t have to be servants of it. I really don’t care what the issue is whether it is remarriage, or gay marriage, or who is called to leadership in the church, or whatever else, if we are trying to use God’s law to separate people from each other or to separate people from God, then we are misusing it, plain and simple. God’s law is there to draw us closer to him and to each other, not to drive us further away.


We no longer live in the world of Genesis chapter 2. We can’t go back; not on our own. Sin and divorce and division and disagreement are a part of our world, and no matter how many good decisions we make, or how many good or bad relationships we have, we are all going to need the grace and mercy of God to enter into his kingdom. But the good news of our faith is that we have it. Jesus Christ is God’s solution to the third chapter of Genesis. His life and death, his suffering and resurrection and ascension are how God is dealing with the brokenness, sin and division in our world. We would be wise to listen to his teachings and to pattern our lives after his behavior, but in the end his life is about so much more than just teaching us to make good decisions. Jesus reminds us that God desires to hold and bless his children. Jesus wants people to be drawn together, not torn apart. Living in a broken and divided world we must always ask ourselves: am I drawing people closer to Christ or pushing them further away? Our role as Jesus’s disciples is very simple and he is very clear about it: Let the children come to me, and DO NOT STOP THEM! We can leave the rest to Jesus.