Sunday, February 24, 2002

Hitting the Slopes

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Mark 4:21-25

Today we propose to assail the craggy cliffs of one of the Scripture's more difficult teachings, to boldly go where few interpreters have easily gone before. Without falling, that is.

"To him who has more will be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

This not a simple, easy verse. It puzzles. It provokes. It challenges. It frustrates. It prods.

Perhaps that is why it is here. It forces us to struggle and stretch and grow. Lent is a season of disciplined attention. We need all the attention we can muster to master the difficult slopes.


Think about slopes for a minute. The winter Olympics far outshine their tepid summer counterparts. Why is this so? Why are the winter games so much more exciting? They are more exciting because they are more perilous, more difficult. It is more than the bracing cold wind, more than the ice along the luge path, more than the slippery surface for racing, more than the uncertain weather. It is a matter of slopes.

The skier standing atop the mountain knows the power, the danger, the excitement of the slope ahead. The luge runner, alone, placed like a nordic meat offering to the God of snow, knows the momentum and risk of the slope. The ski jumper, ready to descend and then fly through the air knows the sheer energy that collects atop an otherwise silent slope. In these games, the human athlete takes the measure of the slope. Sarah Hughes masters the double triple turns empowered by her skating momentum. Canadian curlers guide a massive 42 pound stone, which has its sliding power. Norwegian skiers fly and land. The great Gretsky tries to bring a national momentum to bear on this afternoon's game, to make it a "maple-leaf moment". A body set in motion tends to continue and remain in motion. Water seldom runs uphill.


Now we may adjust our goggles, too. We are about to hit the slope of Mark 4:25. We look out at the run, terrified at the angle of descent and the many gates we must pass.

Here is the first gate. Did Jesus say this? The Jesus of Mark's Gospel did, as Matthew's and Luke's wiggling quotations attest. What about the Jesus before Mark's Gospel? We have no access to him. All the Jesus we meet is the Jesus of cross and resurrection, of faith and obedience, the historic, biblical Christ. Mark is not writing history, he is preaching, from faith to faith.

Here is the second gate. What possibly did this mean? It sounds like the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" until they are "fleeced to the last farthing". It meant something to the first hearers, in Rome, under siege, in 70 A. D. Mark remembers and uses this saying, to help his church. This earliest gospel, so early that it even precedes the naming of such a book as Gospel, is affirming to men and women who are at risk of their lives for their faith, that God has a purpose in Christ Jesus, that the gospel purpose is mysterious, that many are blind to its purposes, that the hidden, humble Messiah is present in resurrection power, and the church's resistance to domination, however pleasantly attired, is blessed.

Here is the third gate. What did others think it meant? The saying is found in Proverbs 9 where it seems to mean, "One who has a capacity for learning, will learn more". After Mark, Matthew interprets Jesus to mean something like "he who has a taste for obedience will increase in obedience", but Matthew is wobbling on his skies, as we are. After Matthew, Luke interprets Jesus to mean something like, "he who has more talents will have more talents still", but Luke is wobbling on his skies, as we are. This is a hard verse, a steep slope.

Here is a fourth gate. What could this mean, in reality, for us today?


I propose, to avoid falling, that we ski carefully around this flag. Perhaps we would incline ourselves toward a single, simple interpretation. Simple, but not easy, that is.

This proverb, offered on the lips of Jesus for the benefit of the frightened in Mark's church, reminds all of the stern reality of slopes. There is power and momentum in slopes. They are deadly as well as delightful. You are aware of this, you skiers in life and faith.

Oh, I could remember Shakespeare (in Julius Caesar, speaking of ancient Rome): "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries". The power of political momentum.

More religiously, I could quote Calvin, a good Lenten voice: "God never forsakes the work of his own hand. Those whom He once began to form He works at more and more and improves them until at last He makes the final polishing and perfecting. The sight of the liberation that He has wrought stirs God up to a continual course of bountifulness; and this is why such manifold graces flow to us from Him, this is why we progress so joyfully. And as his riches are inexhaustible, so He never tires of bestowing them on His children. He wishes to complete the work of salvation that He has begun in us." The power of spiritual momentum.

But you do not need Shakespeare, or Calvin, or me, or even St Mark to feel the surgical cut of this God word. You know it in your experience, on the slope.

There is power and momentum in any personal habit, which control the athlete once she has hit the slope. Drinking is such a slope. Greed is one, too. And there is a longer list than we can cut through on this hillside. The more one rides any of these slopes, the more momentum accrues, the faster the ride, and the harder the ending. Just step off the start pad and watch the potential energy become kinetic real fast. Even the best skier struggles for control on the steepest inclines of such slopes.

There is power and momentum in communal patterns as well. Look what is becoming of our public schools, particularly in the cities of our state. I read in the newspaper that 23% of all students and 11% of all teachers have been physically attacked in these schools. I guess I would not think so much of the numbers if my own daughter had not been assaulted outside her urban junior high school, ten years ago this month. It becomes a slippery slope. I look back a generation at the relations between men and women. Are we doing better than we were? Sometimes I firmly think so. Then, sometimes I hear strident voices from disappointed women or I observe some male silence, angry, fearful, odd, and I wonder. Slippery, slippery slope. I suppose I could look at church patterns too. Or global warming. Or armaments. Slopes in life carry their skiers with power and momentum.

It is this reality that our hard verse admits. More leads to more, and less to less. Slopes carry their own power.


And ahead is the last and fifth gate. To get there takes a jump. As much as this word has for us in reality, it has far more for us in hope. But, as I said, to get there, skis rattling, you will have to jump. It takes a leap. This is the famous leap of faith.

All around Mark in Rome, there is danger. A mogul here, an ice patch there. He announces for his church, and the echo may touch you, that the power and momentum of the deadly slopes need not control or kill you. Because you have been found along a divine slope. God has begun something in you. How do I know this? Because you have said so, a moment ago, in the creed. You have proved so in your presence here. I never take a single person in church for a single hour for granted. You pledge so in your offering. You acclaim so in your hymns. Again, as if for the first time, you have attached yourself to Jesus Christ. You have started down the right slope.

Whoever has, to Him shall more be given.

Mark means this as a way of describing different stages in discipleship. He means it as a word of hope for those, like we, pulling our sleds up hillsides and counting on slopes to carry us home. Feeling like Sisyphus on the way up, and Peter on the way down. Every one of us needs to ask ourselves just what slopes we are hoping to ski, just which hillsides we are climbing. Every one of them has power and momentum, but some end in life and others do not.

The Bible is written from faith to faith, and so is a sermon, written from faith to faith. God has brought you to this place in your life. God has begun to work in and upon you. God has not finished, and like any craftsman who cares about his art, God labors and frets and broods and fusses. Like a woman leading a company. Like a man cleaning his home. Like an editor finely combing a manuscript. Like a scientist examining the evidence. Like a gardener battling weeds. Like a builder surveying an architect's plans. Like a doctor determining an illness.

Underneath these few words in Mark likes this matter of faith, and the question of which slope we allow to carry us home.

The Bible is written from faith to faith. The Bible is not written from mind to mind, nor from feeling to feeling, nor from self to self, nor even from heart to heart, though that is closest. These God words are written - from faith to faith. They are the faithfulness of God touching the gift of faith as this gift is found in humans. Faith is a gift, not an achievement. Faith is a gift, not a deed. Faith is a gift, not a cudgel. The Bible is written from faith to faith.

Your faith is your realest you in the realest part of your life. It is real, it is visceral, it is physical, it is communal, it is gift. To hear the word of God in Scripture is to hear faith speaking to faith. Two parts koinonia gathering, one part voting booth, six parts imagination, four parts dream and daydream, something for the office and something for home, the soul you didn't know you had singing for joy at night or weeping alone in a lonely day. That is faith, a gift, and if you didn't quite get that - good - you got it. The moment you have completely mapped faith, you have killed it. Faith is deeper than mind, hence the problem with studying alone. Faith is deeper than feelings, hence the problem with sharing alone. Faith is deeper than our choices, personal or political, hence the problem with action alone. Faith is a gift of God and is not to be had. We do not have faith as much as faith has us.

Faith had Abraham who at long last was given children. Faith had Hosea who weathered the wrecking violence of love between men and women. Faith had Esther who found a way out of a bureaucratic nightmare. Faith had David who, not without numerous missteps, came to terms with his visceral self, his sexuality, his fear, and his God. Faith had Jesus, before the cross and after. Faith, we know for they made the leap and gave us their gospel, had Marks' martyred church, which 'resisted to blood'. And faith has you.

A careful look at the greek text here, Mark 4:25, suggests that the reference for "him", autw in the original, may be, in a classic case of the words of Jesus becoming the Word about Jesus, a direct reference to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the one who "has" his struggling church already, and to whom will "more" be given. Not so with the god of this world, from whom even what he has will be taken away.

To Him who has, Jesus Christ, will more be given. From him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.


So you are free to try and risk and jump, and even fall. The Russian and French judges will criticize. Let them. This church today is every bit as thrilling as the winter Olympics, slope after slope.

Look over there. Many are involved in programs of self-discipline. Some of these are exercise programs. Some of them are 12 step programs. Some are devotional in nature. You are on the right slope. You can count on power and momentum to carry you down the hill. To Him who has will more be given.

Look over there. Others of us are moving from right to left on the hill, skiing down from a theologically or politically conservative background, toward a more centrist or liberal landing spot. You are also on the right slope, if no longer on the right! You can count on power and momentum to carry you down the hillside. To Him who has will more be given.

Look over there. Still others are moving in the opposite direction, from left to right, skiing down from a more theologically or politically liberal background, toward a more centrist or conservative landing spot. You two are growing, changing. You can count on power and momentum to carry you down the hillside. To Him who has will more be given.

Look at those in the rear. Yes, they are those at middle age, moving through what Dan Levinson calls the four polarities of their age: youth and age, creativity and destruction, masculine and feminine, attachment and separation. Another slippery slope! But you are skiing well. You will make it to the bottom of the hill. To Him who has will more be given.

Just one thing. Don't sit too long in the lodge, by the fire, with the hot chocolate. That's no slope at all. He who has nothing - even what he has will be taken away.

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