Mark died this week.
Mark was a friend from when I was the Pastor at Broadway Baptist Church and was a standout in that unusual cast of characters that was in and around the church. Mark was well known at Broadway and in the neighborhood around the church. He lived in an apartment and, later, a nursing home nearby and was often seen walking around the area carrying his Bible and calling out “Bible revival!” He loved to quote scripture!
As I look back now on my time as a pastor, I can see how over the years I struggled with balancing my role of leading and caring for the institution of the church with loving and caring for individuals like Mark. When I heard Mark had died, I immediately remembered a sermon I preached at Broadway where I talked a lot about an experience I had with Mark and reflected on this very struggle. One of the things I remember most about this sermon is how surprisingly emotional I became as I talked about Mark and what happened that night.
I want to share this sermon now in loving memory of Mark and in gratitude for him.
What Business Are You In?
Broadway Baptist Church
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2011
John Claypool, former pastor here at Broadway, tells about a time he was eating lunch in a restaurant with an old college friend in Texas. A group of men who knew his friend came up to the table to speak, and having been introduced, they all chatted for a few minutes. One of the men asked Claypool what business he was in, and he replied that he was a minister.
Claypool says that he never did figure out what the man thought he said, because the man came right back and asked, What line to you handle? What is your specialty, your main product?
Claypool smiled and said, You must have misunderstood me. I’m a minister, the pastor of a Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky.
To this the man said, Oh! And seemed a little embarrassed and a moment later moved off with his group to sit at another table.
Claypool says that as he drove away from the restaurant that day he got to thinking about that exchange and found himself asking point-blank: What is your business, really? You say you are a minister or the pastor of a Baptist church, but that is actually begging the question. What if that man had been a foreigner and had never heard the words “church” or “pastor” or “minister?” How would you explain to him in simple terms
the main product you handle?
Claypool found this to be a searching thought, one that shook him out of vague generalizations about what he does for a living. Church is a familiar part of our culture. Everyone thinks they know what a church is, what a church does. But if we were called on to define it from scratch and not allowed to use clichés but forced to use the language of the marketplace, as that man had inadvertently done—What is
the main product you handle?—
then all of a sudden we might get a little tongue-tied, a little confused about how to explain it.
[“Our Business is Love,” a sermon by John Claypool, delivered at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, September 3, 1967]
What is our business as a church? What is our line, if you want to call it that, our specialty, our main product?
This actually isn’t the direction I intended to go with this sermon today. What I intended to do was to talk about the proper relationship between law and love—
the problem of law without love and
the problem of love without law.
But I experienced something toward the end of the week that caused me to shift my thinking. And I began to think to myself,
What if this scripture today is really about setting priorities?
What if we asked ourselves today: What is the one thing that each of us must do before we do anything else?
What is our primary obligation in life and in death?
Jesus is being tested by the religious authorities on this very matter. In chapter 21 of Matthew Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately after entering Jerusalem the testing begins. This is Jesus’ final exam. He will be dead in a week.
The religious leaders begin asking him questions:
By what authority are you doing these things?
Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Then, right before our text today, they try their most complicated question yet:
There were seven brothers. The first married and died, then his brother married her, then he died and his other brother married her and on down the line so that this poor lady had been married to all seven brothers. Now, when the woman dies, which one of the seven will be her husband in heaven?
And then, finally, in today’s scripture, they ask the ultimate question: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?
They could very well have been asking him, As religious people, what is our specialty, what is our main product?
The Pharisees were really putting Jesus in a bind, asking him to say which of the laws was the greatest. How do you name one and leave out all the others?
There were 613 regulations related to Moses’ law that the scribes and Pharisees studied. And they tacked on all kinds of additions to each of the 613 regulations. Just on the Sabbath day regulations alone the rules had mushroomed.
A man could ride a donkey without breaking the Sabbath rules, but if he carried a switch to make it go faster he would be guilty of laying a burden on it.
A woman could not look in the mirror on the Sabbath lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out.
You could swallow vinegar but not gargle it.
Whatever Moses had said, the Pharisees could improve on. The third commandment was “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord.” It became a ban against using the Lord’s name at all so that they would write “G-d” not “God” and never speak the word at all.
“You shall not commit adultery” came to mean you can’t talk to or even look at women. They called them “bleeding Pharisees” because when they walked in the streets they lowered their head and bumped into walls. Their bruises were a badge of holiness.
[Philip Yancey, Amazing Grace]
Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? The Pharisees were the experts on this. They were really putting Jesus to the test. Which commandment in the law is the greatest?
Jesus answered this way:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
If you were to hang all of those 613 laws on one nail, which would it be? Jesus uses two nails: the love of God and the love of neighbor.
Love of God, love of neighbor. We learn in our own experience how one form of love leads to the other. We can take a cue from the early church mystic named John. His central insight is that God’s very essence is love. Not hate, meanness, or judgment, but love. As John says, Those who dwell in this abundant love are dwelling in God, and God’s presence makes a home in them (1 Jn 4:16).
For those who give themselves to such love, he suggests there are two primary benefits.
First, we have confidence in times of trouble. The reality of God’s love chases away our fear, because we know that God does not intend to punish us but to gather God’s beloved children in a great embrace. So we are transformed as we come to know God’s love.
Second, as God’s love makes a home in us, we reach out to love the people that God brings into our lives. As John puts it, it is a contradiction to say, I love God, and turn away from a brother, a sister, or a neighbor. Love is not a prize to be hoarded, but a gift to be given away. If we love God who first loved us, it always leads us to love those around us.
If you try, I bet you can think of places and times where you have seen things work in this way.
How about the youth group’s mission trip, where teenagers use paintbrushes and hammers to improve other people’s homes? One of the members of the youth group says at the end of the trip that he had a religious experience during a week like that. It suddenly dawned on him that the world doesn’t revolve around him or his friends. As he committed his time and energy to repairing the home of some strangers, he began to take an interest in them.
He learned their names and ate at their table. When they asked him to say the blessing at dinner one evening, he suddenly had a deep and abiding sense that God cared about all of them. If I stayed home to play XBox, he said, I never would have known it.
[William G. Carter, www.goodpreacher.com, October 23, 2011]
Here’s what happened to me this week that caused me to abandon what I had planned for this sermon and go this other direction.
I’m a pretty even-keeled person, but I confess that I’ve been more frustrated than usual the last couple of weeks. We’ve just had a few minor but frustrating things happen around here at church lately. And then we’ve taken a little downturn financially the last few weeks here, and we’re back to being on the edge each week, which is frustrating. For whatever reason, and it may not even be any of that, I’ve just found myself getting more easily frustrated lately with things and people than I normally do.
Thursday afternoon we found out that one of our members had been taken to Harris Hospital. I’ll just call him by his first name, but many of you know Mark. Mark lives in one of the apartments around here and is known for quoting scripture and calling out “Bible Revival,” and walking the streets around this neighborhood.
And to be perfectly honest with you, Mark can be kind of annoying to me sometimes. He comes around all the time. On Wednesday nights at church, no matter where I sit down, he almost always has to sit there, too. He always dominates the conversation. One time he got so excited about something I said he whacked me on the head with his Bible. Most of have been hit over the head with the Bible figuratively, but this time it was literal.
I don’t know what Mark’s mental or psychiatric condition is, but, whatever it is, he’s been on a downturn lately, and it got bad enough this week that he was taken to the hospital.
Thursday evening, after checking into the Agape Meal, I left there and went over to Harris Hospital to see about Mark. On my over there I remembered that I didn’t have a clergy parking pass on my new car, and, of course, I didn’t have any cash. So I was afraid to park in the garage, and I parked about two blocks away from Harris on the street on Pennsylvania Avenue.
My family always gives me a hard time about parking way farther away than I have to, and that was definitely the case this time. Once I got out of the car and started walking, I realized that I was actually a couple of blocks away from the entrance to the hospital. I might as well have just walked from the church to Harris.
I finally got inside and found out that Mark was still in the Emergency Department, which is at the far end of the complex from where I entered. I went back and found the room where he was. As I approached, I could see him through the doorway of his room talking and laughing. I wondered who was there with him. I went into the room and saw that he was by himself.
I think he recognized me. We began to talk, and I realized that he was not himself. Mark is always unusual, quirky, but not like this. He wasn’t himself at all. He was doing a lot of talking but not making any sense. And he wasn’t quoting the Bible at all, which was really unusual for Mark.
I talked to a nurse and found out that he was waiting to be transferred to JPS, that they should be there any minute. Since he was by himself, I decided to just sit down with Mark and wait.
Well, we waited, and Mark was talking but not really saying anything. I was hungry. It was almost 7:00, which meant that the Rangers game was about to start. I decided I wasn’t doing much good there, and I didn’t know when the people were going to get there to take him to JPS, so I stood up and said, Mark, I think I’m going to go home.
He quickly stood up and said, OK! Am I going with you?
I said, No, you’re going to stay here and then you’re going to go to JPS.
He put his head down and said, Whatever, then sat down. I told him goodbye and walked out of his room.
But now I felt bad. I stood a few feet outside his room and watched him. He was just sitting there. By himself. Head down.
I stood there a few more minutes thinking about dinner and about the Rangers, all the while watching Mark. I went over to the nurse and asked her if there was anything I could do to help Mark. See, I was still caught in the trap of looking for something I could “do” She said, Not really anything you can do. You could sit with him.
I sighed and went back into his room. He greeted me warmly, and I told him I was going to stay there with him till they came to get him. He didn’t understand what I was talking about, but he seemed thrilled to have someone to talk to.
So I sat there with Mark for about an hour. He did a lot of talking, only occasionally making sense. We played a game where he would call out a letter, and we would take turns naming a place in the world that started with that letter. He would say I. I would say, Iowa. He’d say Illinois. I’d say Idaho. He’d say Israel. We did the letters A and I and B over and over. Sometimes when I would say Iowa, he would exclaim, The Iowa Caucuses!
I asked him some questions about his life and his family, and actually got some real answers. I learned a little about his family. He must have told me his childhood home address a hundred times.
Eventually they came for him—two big guys, but Mark didn’t give them any trouble. He compliantly got on the stretcher, and I walked with them out to the ambulance.
That was it. Nothing really happened. Just me and Mark sitting in a hospital room together talking mostly nonsense. Any yet, something happened to me over the course of that hour sitting in that room with Mark. After awhile,
I quit worrying about dinner.
I quit worrying about the Rangers.
I stopped worrying about the church budget or policies.
I quit being anxious about people or what I needed to do.
And somehow, in a way I can’t really explain, sitting there with Mark became something of a spiritual experience for me. I actually felt like I was in the presence of Jesus. I felt like it was a significant moment somehow. When I was walking back to my car—and I had a long way to walk so a long time to think— I felt strangely emotional about the whole thing.
So, I was trying to figure out what that was all about. I think it’s because I was reminded, again,
what my business is,
what my line is,
the main product I handle.
And it is love. Love for my neighbor Mark. Love for God, who seems mysteriously present to me when I love my neighbor. Simple, impractical, seemingly insignificant love.
I went in there out of a sense of obligation to visit Mark. I left with a sense that I had received a visit from God. I went because I have been commanded to love my neighbor, but I ended up experiencing love.
Here’s what I learned Thursday night, and I pass it along to you: sooner or later,
if we will dwell in the abundant love of God and
if the love of God will make a home in us,
the commandments of God will turn into experiences of grace.
And that, as it turns out, is the business I am in.