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The Right Kind of Trouble

“The Right Kind of Trouble”

Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

January 7, 2024                                             

There is a beautiful scene in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong.

In the novel a 17-year-old teenager named Victoria gets pregnant, and Victoria’s mother kicks her out of the house.  

Victoria is taken in by a schoolteacher named Maggie Jones. Maggie would love to be able to offer more permanent housing for Victoria, but Maggie’s father, who is living with dementia and who is frequently agitated, is also living in the house, and Maggie fears that the mix will eventually become volatile. 

So one day, Maggie drives seventeen miles south of town to the ranch of two elderly brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron, both of them lifelong bachelors who have always lived on their ranch.

And now I’d like to quote a few lines of dialogue from my favorite scene in the novel.

The brothers are on a tractor, returning to the house. They’d been feeding cattle out in winter pasture.

Maggie stepped away from the barn and stood waiting for them. The brothers moved heavily in their winter overalls. . . .

"You’re going to freeze yourself standing there," Harold said. "You better get out of the wind. Are you lost?"

"Probably," Maggie Jones said. She laughed. "But I wanted to talk to you."

"Oh, oh. I don’t like the sound of that."

"Don’t tell me I scared you already," she said.

"Why [heck]," Harold said. "You probably want something."

"I do," she said.

The three of them enter the modest bachelor farmhouse with stacks of magazines and greasy pieces of farm machinery on all the furniture.

They sit down.

"I came out here to ask you a favor," she said to them.

"That’s so?" Harold said. "What is it?"

"There is a girl I know who needs some help," Maggie said. "She’s a good girl but she’s gotten into trouble. I think you might be able to help her. I would like you to consider it and let me know."

"What’s wrong with her?" Harold said. "She need a donation of money?"

"No, she needs a lot more than that."

"What sort of trouble is she in?" Raymond said.

"She’s seventeen. She’s four months pregnant and she doesn’t have a husband."

"Well, yeah," Harold said. "I reckon that could amount to trouble."

Maggie explains that the girl’s father abandoned the family years ago, her mother won’t have her in the house, because she’s gotten pregnant, the father of her child doesn’t want anything to do with her.

"All right then," Harold said. "You got our attention. You say you don’t want money. What do you want?"

She sipped her coffee . . . looked at the two old brothers . . . . "I want something improbable," she said. "That’s what I want. I want you to think about taking this girl in. Of letting her live with you."

They stared at her.

"You’re fooling," Harold said.

"No," Maggie said, "I am not fooling."

They were dumbfounded. They looked at her . . . as if she might be dangerous. They peered into the palms of their hands . . . and looked out the window. . . .

"Oh, I know it sounds crazy," she said. 

"I suppose it is crazy. But that girl needs somebody. . . . She needs a home for these months. 

And you," she smiled at them, "—you old [solitary boys] need somebody too. 

Somebody or someone besides an old red cow to care about and worry over. 

It’s too lonesome out here. Well, look at you. You’re going to die someday without ever having enough trouble in your life. Not the right kind anyway. This is your chance."

After a long silence, Harold says, "Let’s get back to the money part. Money’d be a lot easier."

"Yes," she said. "It would. But not nearly as much fun."

Maggie asks them to think about it and leaves. The brothers return to work "as mutely and numbly as if they had been stunned into a sudden and permanent silence by such a proposal."

It seems like such an improbable proposal. Two bachelor farmers. A pregnant teenage girl. Their worlds aren’t supposed to intersect, but thanks to Maggie Jones their worlds are about to come together.

In the Gospel of Mark, 

Jesus appears on the scene, 

and immediately Jesus begins breaking down barriers, breaking down the barriers between us and God, breaking down the barriers between us and everyone else.

It begins with Jesus’ baptism.

When the Gospels of Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ baptism, they report that the heavens opened and a voice from heaven spoke, almost like a scene in a Monty Python movie where the clouds open and God appears in a flood of light.

But when Mark describes Jesus’ baptism, Mark says that the heavens were violently torn apart. And from that moment on, God is at loose in the world in the person of Jesus Christ, shattering conventions, breaking down barriers.

The baptism scene in Mark is an answer to the Prophet Isaiah’s prayer: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”

The verb that Mark uses to describe the heavens being torn apart is the same verb that Mark uses in the crucifixion scene of Jesus, when the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple is torn from top to bottom. 

In the Temple system only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year to atone for the peoples’ sins.

But the tearing of the veil from top to bottom demonstrates that God is tearing down that barrier. We no longer need an intermediary to plead our case before God. We can approach God ourselves.

The late Donald Juel, who taught New Testament at Princeton Seminary, used to emphasize that this scene symbolizes that we now have access to God.

One day Juel was leading a bible study with high school students, and he described the tearing of the veil, and how that suggested that we now have access to God.

And a high school boy replied, “I think you got that all wrong, professor!”

Juel leaned in, somewhat bemused and politely awaiting the response, but Juel later said that the young man’s response forever changed how he viewed the scene.

The student said, “I don’t think it means that we now have access to God.

I think it means, that all of a sudden, God has access to us.

See, all of a sudden, the God we’ve trapped behind the curtain is on the loose.

And according to Mark, God was already breaking loose--already getting ready to run wild through human history--at Jesus’ baptism.

So, when you look at the story of Jesus following the moment of Jesus’ baptism, you’re seeing what it looks like to have God on the loose.

And what does it look like?

Well, it’s troubling.

As we read the Gospel of Mark together, we will see how Jesus is the one who touches and holds lepers.

Jesus is the one who parties with cheating tax collectors and thieves.

Jesus is the one who lets a woman stroke and anoint him at a party in a leper’s house.

Jesus is the one who broke the Sabbath laws right in front of the people who had been obeying the Sabbath laws all their lives.

Jesus is the one telling them that the law was made to serve humans; 

humans weren’t made to serve the law.

So when the law hurts humans, 

humans ought to make it their duty to break it down, tear it up, 

rip it apart the way God ripped the heavens and shredded the Temple curtain.

Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to send money?

It’s troubling. 

But in our hearts we know that it’s the right kind of trouble.

The barriers that we so carefully erect to separate ourselves from others in an effort to maintain a certain kind of superficial status are barriers that should have never been erected in the first place.

Jesus is at loose in our world, knocking those barriers down.

I believe that part of our calling is to get into the right kind of trouble.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about getting into trouble simply for the sake of getting into trouble. We are Presbyterians, after all.

But the right kind of trouble---that’s something we should all be seeking to get into.

All of us who follow Jesus have a calling to join Jesus in his barrier-breaking work, 

to make sure that we don’t simply print a welcome statement in our bulletin inserts, but that we take the time for honest self-reflection and prayer 

and do what we need to do to dismantle the subconscious barriers we erect between ourselves and others.

The more we can engage each other in authentic, truth-telling conversation, 

then the more we can join Jesus in this barrier-breaking work.

In the weeks ahead I invite you to join me in reading through the Gospel of Mark.

It’s the shortest gospel; it’s a quick read; it’s very fast-paced.

Let’s talk about what we discover, and together we can get into the right kind of trouble.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.


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