Easter 2B

April 9, 2018

Infected With Life

John 20:19-31


19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


There are some things in life I just don’t understand, and one unanswered question for me is why this morning’s gospel lesson is the prescribed reading every year on this Sunday. Generally speaking, the suggested scripture lessons go in a three year cycle. As many of you have come to understand, I like to preach from the Lectionary, and I usually preach from the recommended Gospel lesson. I expect the same readings to come up every three years, but on the first Sunday after Easter Sunday each year the Lectionary calls for this same passage from John to be read, and I don’t understand why. It’s a good passage of scripture, but I think there are other good ones as well.


The only thing I can figure is that this is traditionally the most poorly attended Sunday of the year. Maybe that mysterious body of people who created the Lectionary cycle decided that most church-going people will only attend services on this Sunday every third year anyway, so why not just use the same scripture every year. With that logic I could use the same sermon every year. Of course I probably preach the same sermon every week to some extent – at least the essence of the message is very similar, but I do try to package it a little differently.


But you didn’t heroically show up this morning to hear me ponder the mysteries of the Lectionary Cycle. Clearly I could deviate from my pattern and find another worthy passage of scripture to address, but this is an interesting passage to look at, and it’s probably worthy of annual attention.


I think we all probably connect with this character we’ve come to know as Doubting Thomas on some level. And it’s interesting to think about Jesus getting so literally in the face of his disciples. Jesus wasn’t in their face in a bad way, but this is a story of Jesus getting up close and personal. We’re told that he breathed on them, and in so doing he shared with them the Holy Spirit.


We just aren’t used to getting breathed on. It’s not a casual thing. Most of us have really short lists of people to whom we are willing to be close enough to feel their breath. There are those occasions when someone enters our space with their breath, and that generally feels like a violation of our space. I don’t know if the ancient Palestinians were as particular as we are about getting breathed upon, but I’m guessing it was not a casual thing – even for them, to feel the breath of another person.


But this wasn’t a normal situation. The disciples had assembled in close proximity to one another because they were afraid. It’s probably similar to the way people gather in closets or bathrooms when deranged shooters are on the premises. Unfortunately it isn’t hard for us to imagine what those disciples might have been feeling because we’ve seen video of how people are when they feel that their lives are being threatened. Fortunately this isn’t a situation that many of us have actually experienced.


I’m guessing there are a few people here who have lived through a situation that seemed imminently life threatening, but we all know the feeling of fear. We may not have found ourselves cowered down in fear of arrest and torturous death, but there are some fearful intruders we all hope to avoid. There’s a knock on the door we don’t want to hear, a doctor’s report we don’t want to read, or a call we don’t want to get.


There are many life-stealing situations that we all face, and there’s a lot of unmet yearning for life-giving opportunities. The disciples faced a very specific life-threatening situation, but it’s not unusual to find ourselves cowered down in unsettling situations, and I love this image of the risen Christ being able to penetrate the barriers we erect in hope of staying safe. Barriers provide some cover, but life doesn’t happen behind barriers – life happens when we come out from behind the barriers. Barriers can be useful, but they don’t give us what we really need.


The disciples were as good as dead as they gathered together behind that locked door. They were still breathing, but they weren’t really alive – not until Jesus came in and infected them with the Holy Spirit. It was then that they truly came to life and at that point they were empowered to deal with whatever the world would fling toward them. They became infected by the life-giving spirit of Jesus Christ and that changed everything for them.


Most of the germs that infect us aren’t so generous, and there are some that are incredibly disabling. I heard this amazing story on NPR one day about a man named Martin Pistorious, a resident of South Africa, who was stricken with a disease called cryptococcal meningitis when he was about 12 years old, and it caused him to lose his entire ability to function. It was sort of a gradual loss, but over the course of a few months he went from being totally functional to being totally dysfunctional. He couldn’t do anything, and the doctors told his parents to take him home and keep him comfortable until he died.


Well he didn’t die, but he remained in that state of total unresponsiveness for more than 12 years. He was totally unconscious for the first few years, but his mind slowly began to wake up and he became totally aware of what was going on about 4 years in to the situation. He was totally awake, but he was completely unable to communicate his situation to anyone.


And that went on for years. He was in that state for about 8 years before his family began to recognize some intentional movements on his part, but even then the doctors told them that he probably had the mind of an infant. With encouragement from a kind-hearted nurse they got a second opinion on the state of his mind, and that is when he began to reconnect with the world. He still can’t talk, but he communicates with a voice activated computer, and he is totally reconnected with life.


The really interesting thing is to hear him describe what went on in his mind during those years of disconnection. He said there was a period of time when he totally disassociated himself from his thoughts, and he did that because he had terrible thoughts. He was tormented by his thoughts. He would think about how alone and worthless he was, and in order to deal with that he said he became detached from his thoughts. You might say he embraced his own death. It was a barrier he erected to protect himself, but at some point, his desire to live penetrated that barrier, and he began to reengage with the world in his mind.


He lived in an adult day-care center for several years where they thought he had the mind of an infant, so they put him in a room where they played perpetual Barney reruns. He developed a deep dislike of Barney, but he learned to tell time by watching the movement of the shadows across the room, and he learned to predict when his father would come get him away from Barney.


He went from seeing his mind as his tormentor to seeing it as his only functional tool, and he used his mind all day to resist the bad things that were happening to him, to enjoy the small blessings of the day, to imagine, and to analyze what was going on. He came back to life in his mind, and over time he amazingly reconnected with his family and friends. Eventually he became a website designer, and at age 33 he got married. He has written a book about his life that’s called, Ghost Boy.


It’s truly a story of a person who went from death to life, and while there is no mention of his faith journey in this story, what I heard him talk about is how much he ached to be reconnected to life, and in a miraculous manner he did.


Jesus didn’t step in the room, turn off the Barney reruns, and restore him to life in an instant, but I believe Jesus comes to us all in different ways. Thomas certainly had a unique encounter with the living Christ, and while there are a number of ways to interpret what this story of Thomas is all about, what stands out to me is not how much doubt Thomas had, but how much desire he had for the resurrection to be real.


It’s a good thing to be filled with desire for life to be meaningful. We shouldn’t be content to have adequate barriers erected to keep us relatively secure. God created us to be people who have an appetite for life and not to settle for mere comfort.


The story of this man who lived in such a diminished state of life for such a long time is painful to think about, but it’s amazing the way that people’s souls often become so activated when their lives become so threatened. I don’t think you can separate the motivation of the disciples to get out and tell of their experience with the living Christ apart from the devastation they were feeling immediately after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were as good as dead, but they became infected by the spirit of Christ, and at that point they were going to share what they had experienced even if it cost them their lives.


Its amazing the way that Christ penetrates the barriers we try to create to keep ourselves safe and secure. God doesn’t just want us to remain alive. God wants us to be infected with life, and that’s what Jesus brought into the world – the spirit of true life. There were people who didn’t want that spirit to be set loose in the world, but it was a condition that couldn’t be contained.


I take great comfort in this story of Jesus breaking through the locked doors of the room where his disciples had gathered. I love to believe that Jesus is trying to break in to all of our lives and to infect us with true life. It’s not just a miracle the way this sometimes happens – I believe it’s a miracle whenever this happens!


And thanks be to God this is the miracle God seeks to work in all of our lives!



Easter B

April 2, 2018

Divine Comedy

Mark 16:1-8


1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.


The title of my sermon this morning sounds like a famous book that I’ve never read. The Divine Comedy is actually a long poem that was completed by that Italian man named Dante in 1320. I’m guessing few of us here have actually read it, but it’s something most of us have heard of on some level. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I’m guessing most of us have heard of Dante’s inferno, which comes from this poem, The Divine Comedy. Dante’s poem probably isn’t what we would call laugh out loud funny, but it fits the Greek notion of literary comedy which means that it has a happy ending. I’ve never read it, so I can’t speak to the happy way in which it ends, but I’m guessing that’s the case.


The Gospels all fit that classical definition of comedy in that they each have a happy ending – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, but I think there’s some actual comedy in this morning’s reading.


I don’t know if Mark intended to be funny, but he may have. I think we often miss some of the comedy in the Bible either because it isn’t translated in a way that conveys the comedy, or we are inclined to think that humor could never be incorporated in the transmission Godly information. Of course we know that isn’t true. Most of us have had profound truths communicated to us in a funny way.  Granted, I’m inclined to think that one of the most important things we do in life is to find amusement in the way things operate, but I think what we are dealing with this morning is an amazingly amusing story.


The particular detail I want to call to your attention is the reaction of the women to the situation. We don’t know a lot about these women, but from what I can tell, these three women, Mary, Mary, and Salome, are the people who remained the most faithful to Jesus throughout his ministry. They didn’t flee from the situation as we know that some others did when things became dangerous, and they were on hand to witness the terrible suffering that Jesus endured during the crucifixion. These women are about the closest thing we have to heroes of the story, and they were still focused on what they needed to do to serve Jesus on the first day of the week when they could go back to the tomb and properly prepare his body.


So they’re on their way to the tomb and they’re wondering how they are going to roll the stone away from the entrance because of course there weren’t going to be any men around, but they get there and they discover that the stone has been rolled away and that there is in fact a man on hand. They don’t recognize this man, but he’s wearing a white robe. And this man has a very clear message for them. He says: Don’t be alarmed. I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here – he has been raised! Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to the disciples, including Peter, ‘He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you’


Granted they don’t know this man, but he’s wearing a white robe, he tells them not to be alarmed and to go and deliver a message.


And the very next verse, which is the last line in the original version of the Book of Mark, goes like this: So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified and they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.


I mean it’s not exactly gut busting humor – it didn’t generate a series of jokes that begin with the line, Three women walk into an empty tomb … but this is sort of funny to me. Mark end’s his gospel by saying these three faithful women flee from the scene of the resurrection in fear and they don’t tell anyone what they had seen after they were told not to be afraid and to tell people what happened. Like I said, I don’t know if Mark intended to be funny, but he certainly chose to end his account of Jesus in a curious way.


People without a sense of humor got together and decided that wasn’t a satisfying ending to the gospel and they tacked on a couple of more paragraphs – you’ll find those extra words in your Bible, but in my opinion it’s not an improvement to the story.


I like the original ending. It reminds me of how things generally work and how people are. We get scared of the wrong things, we talk when we need to be quiet and we don’t say anything when we need to let people know what’s going on. This is the world I occupy. This is who I am! And I’m so grateful that this version of the story is there for people like me.


Clearly the extent of our folly isn’t very funny. The manner in which Jesus was crucified is about as far from comedy as you can get. The life story of Jesus of Nazareth was more like a classic tragedy than a classic comedy. Classic tragedies generally reveal the way in which the conditions of this world line up in ways that cause terrible hardship and loss. We human beings often play critical roles in creating tragic circumstances, and that was certainly the case in the way that Jesus was treated.


The story of the life and death of Jesus is nothing short of a tragedy, but it turns out that the people who thought they knew what they were doing had no idea what they were up against. Those who put Jesus to death thought they had enough power to control the message that Jesus had come to deliver, but it turns out that their undertaking was the laughable thing. The way he was misunderstood and ultimately executed was profoundly tragic, but the resurrection of Christ revealed the ultimate ineptness of evil. The details of the crucifixion are sheer horror, but the overall story is a romantic comedy.


Taken as a whole, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the story of God’s profound and prevailing love for frail and flawed human beings. It’s a wonderful story for people like Peter, people like the three women, and people like us. It’s even a story about God’s love for people like the high priests who plotted against Jesus, like Judas who betrayed him, and Pilate who condemned him. The resurrection story is not a story of condemnation – it’s the story of God’s love overwhelming the forces of evil.


In all likelihood, Mark didn’t end his account of Jesus in the way he did in order to be funny. I think he more likely ended his gospel the way he did in order to motivate us to continue the story. And that’s what a good comedy always does – at least that’s what it does for me. When I read a book or watch a movie that ends with some kind of surprising joy I find myself motivated to do what I can to cooperate with the people who were trying to do the right thing. I usually lose my heroic intentions by bedtime, but I’m guessing most of us find good endings to be motivational.


And the way Mark ends his gospel is particularly motivating. The women who first went to Jesus’ gravesite were doing the right thing. They were doing what others were hesitant to do – which was to publicly associate themselves with Jesus, but the way they responded to the instruction they got from the man wearing a white robe wasn’t exactly the model of faithfulness, so what we see is the opportunity for us to conduct ourselves in better ways. These women didn’t deliver the good news that Jesus has been raised in the best way possible – maybe we can do better.


And sometimes we do, but it’s not easy to maintain a grip on the good news that we get from the resurrection story. Life doesn’t generally feel like a romantic comedy. We encounter a lot of screwball antics, but we probably experience more punches than punch-lines. Life isn’t always so funny, and while God has shown that love prevails over evil – bad things continue to happen. In the short term, twisted minds continue to generate evil plots, disease flourishes, selfishness happens, loneliness thrives, and loved ones die. Perhaps when those women fled from the tomb they were feeling like one more horrible thing had occurred and they just couldn’t take it anymore.


I know there are times I just want to run away and not say anything to anyone, but Mark’s message is for us to trust in the nearness of God’s kingdom regardless of what appears to be happening. Maybe in order to understand the last line in this gospel we need to remember the first thing that Jesus is reported to have said in the Gospel of Mark. It happened right after his righteous predecessor, John the Baptist, was arrested. Jesus came in to Galilee and said:


Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!


The fact that John the Baptist and Jesus both were arrested and executed speaks to the fact that this world is rarely receptive to the good news of God’s nearness, but the resurrection story tells us that it’s true. This world continues to be a messy place to live, and it’s not ordered in a way that reflects the nearness of our loving God, but Mark wants us to join him in trusting that it’s true. Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is in our midst and is going before us in order to meet us in the places where we live.


It’s a funny thing the way this often plays out. While the nearness of God’s kingdom hasn’t fully undermined the pain of death and the prevalence of evil – it’s often in response to painful situations that we experience that nearness of God. Mark wants us to trust that this will always be true, and we should order our lives around this truth. We don’t need to flee in fear and silence, but to go boldly ahead and tell what we trust to be true.


You can’t blame the three women from fleeing in fear and silence. I’m thinking that’s how many of us would have responded to the situation. We do dumb things when we are scared – we do funny things when we are scared, but we have the luxury of thinking about this thing from the comfort of our sanctuary, and we can do better than fleeing and not telling anyone what we have heard.


I’m guessing those women had a hard time living down their less than composed response to the news that Jesus was out of the tomb and going ahead of them to Galilee. There’s nothing wrong with responding to an amazing truth in an uncomposed way, but there is something wrong if we have no response to the good news that Christ is alive. The odd ending of Mark is to be the beginning of a new story for all of us. It’s the story of how we choose to live when we know that love prevails, and that God can redeem any situation. It may not be laugh out loud funny, but it should at least bring a smile to your heart, and thanks be to God for that.


Palm Sunday B

March 26, 2018

Seeing Through the Palm

Mark 11:1-11
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.'” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. 9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.


The question is: Was the manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem a parade? Or was it a parody of a parade? When we look at this story are we seeing a portrayal of power and victory or was it an event designed to undermine our understanding of power and victory? There isn’t an easy answer to this question. I think we can trust that this is an event that happened very closely to the way Mark tells it. You will find this story in each of the four gospels, and they are all very similar – with some slight differences. Luke tells the story in a way that highlights the exuberant nature of the event. He says that when the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to reign in the festivities Jesus said the rocks would cry out if the people got quiet. John sort of plays it down. He presents it as less of an organized event and more of a spontaneous eruption of enthusiasm for Jesus, but I think it’s safe to say that Jesus entered Jerusalem in a very public manner.


But I don’t think it’s easy for us to understand what was going on with the way Jesus entered Jerusalem. There were many different agendas at play, and the way Mark tells the story we are invited to understand what Jesus was thinking – because there wasn’t much understanding at the time. And in retrospect I think this was more of a parody of a parade than an actual parade.


And here’s what I mean by this. A parade is a celebration of an understood event. There are parades for teams that win championships, for holidays, and for other displays of power and achievement. If this had been an actual parade, and if it was set in our time, Jesus would have entered the city in an expensive sports car with the top down. Or maybe on top of a giant firetruck. The mode of transportation would have made a clear statement of power and authority. Parades are fancy occasions that hype up the situation. And Mark seems to be saying that this was no parade. Jesus entered the city with great fanfare, but it seems to have been more of an imitation of a parade than an actual parade. It was a parody of a parade.


If this procession was set in our day and time, I think Jesus would have entered the city sitting in a folding chair in the back of an old pickup — not an antique truck, but a faded model out of the eighties. Jesus didn’t come in to town on a beautiful and strong horse, as emperors and soldiers were known to ride. Jesus chose to come in to town on a colt that he had managed to borrow for a little while.


Now there is an element of a parade here. There were many people who truly were excited about Jesus coming into Jerusalem, and these people trusted that Jesus was the guy who was going to restore the glory of Israel. There was actual enthusiasm for Jesus as he entered Jerusalem – even though he was riding on an animal that was so small his feet were probably touching the ground.


There was genuine enthusiasm among many people who came out to greet Jesus. It might even be accurate to say it was a little bit like a Trump rally. There was this expectation among many people that this outsider was going to come in, take control, and make the nation great again. There were many different agendas and expectations among the people, but there was only one person who knew what he was doing, and that was Jesus. Yes, he was going to restore the glory of Israel. He was going to show the way to be great. He was going to do something that would provide salvation to the world, but he wasn’t going to do it in a way that anyone expected.


The only consistent theme in all of the Gospels is that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and I’m convinced that Mark wanted us to see this glorious entry in to Jerusalem as something that was more like street theater than an exhibition of conventional power. In this Gospel, the way Jesus entered Jerusalem was more of a parable than a parade. It was an event that was designed to make us wonder.


So if you find Palm Sunday to be an emotionally confusing celebration I’m right with you. I’m really not sure how to feel about a day like this. It’s the day we celebrate the dramatic entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, and it’s a painful reminder of how misunderstood Jesus really was. We want to whoop it up for our guy who entered Jerusalem with the means and resolve to change the world, and we know that it cost him his life.


It’s not easy to hold together a sense of celebration and sorrow, but I think this passage invites us to embrace both of these emotions on this day we call Palm Sunday. It makes sense to sort of dance up and down the aisles of the sanctuary and to join with those original religious pilgrims who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem as their savior – and to also acknowledge that we stand with them in having no idea what we are doing. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing, and what he did is something for us to cheer – and to bemoan.


If you look at the way Mark tells this story it’s actually hard not to see this entrance into Jerusalem as a parody of a military procession. The Mount of Olives is the highest point in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and it was considered to be the place from which the liberation of Jerusalem would be mounted. Like any good military commander, Jesus assembled his people on this strategic and religiously significant place as he prepared to take hold of the city, but instead of gathering weapons and provisions for a military coup – he had arranged to borrow a colt for the afternoon. And he had assured the colt’s owner that they would promptly return it. This is not the stuff of a conventional revolution, but it was some powerful political theater.


Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem imitated a military procession, and it highlights the non-militaristic strategy that Jesus employed to change the world. Jesus had passionate followers, and the people who lined the road as he came into town was not an ignorable body of people. This was a powerful assembly of people who were ready for something powerful to happen. They didn’t lay their garments on the road and cut branches to decorate his path out of some kind of religious obligation or duty – it was passion that moved them to do what they did.


These people were desperate for somebody to do something to restore the glory of Israel and to make their lives better and more meaningful. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think they would have taken whatever action he called for them to do, but Jesus didn’t harness the enthusiasm of the moment. This processional didn’t end with a fiery sermon on the steps of the Temple. He didn’t say anything when he got to the Temple. Mark says he just walked in, looked around, and left. They had assured the owner of the colt that Jesus would return the animal immediately, and they weren’t going to let him down.


Today’s story highlights the essence of the struggle we have as Christians. I think we have this desire to be a part of something big and dramatic and powerful and life changing, but the way Jesus went about this is hard for us to embrace. Of course the truth is that it’s not easy to construct an institution that actually embodies the values and the strategy and the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. How do you build an organization around someone who had so little interest in establishing a conventional institution? Our challenge is to follow a man who chose to engage in a parody of conventional success.


This procession into Jerusalem portrays the powerfully appealing nature of who Jesus was, and it points to the way in which Jesus challenges each of us to the core. It’s hard for me to understand what an institution is supposed to look like that’s built around this man who used his power to undermine all the ways we like to accumulate power.


I think this is a story that designed to make us wonder. We don’t know what Jesus was thinking when he walked into the Temple and looked around, but the way this story ends invites us to look around and reflect on who we are and what we are doing.


I don’t think Jesus is displeased with the way we gather to celebrate his presence with us. I’m grateful that there is this institution that carries his name and studies his words, but I don’t think we should ever become overly impressed with who we are and what we do. Jesus could see through the palm branches and into the hearts of the people who were cheering him on. Jesus knew of the mixed agendas that those people represented, and he loved them anyway. Jesus knows how hard it is for us to live by the rule of love and faith in God and not in pursuit of the rewards of this world. Jesus knows how we struggle to reconcile our lives on earth with our desire for heaven. He understands the way we fail to reconcile those things well. He loves us anyway, and with the holy spirit he’s trying to help us do better.


This is a strange day in the life of the church, but that’s not such a strange thing because we have been called to live in a strange way. Jesus was out to save the world, but he didn’t do it in the way that anyone expected. It’s a wondrous thing that Jesus did, and maybe the best response we can offer to this story and to the following events that occurred when Jesus entered Jerusalem is our wonder. We would do well to wonder because if we don’t stop to wonder at the way God was revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we aren’t paying attention.


This is a tough week for us disciples. The entry in to Jerusalem might have been some interesting street theater, but it turned in to an actual trial and an all-too-real crucifixion. The disciples scattered. The rulers of this world took charge, and it felt like all was lost.


Jesus knew that the people who were cheering as he entered Jerusalem had no idea what was about to happen, and he proceeded anyway. He knew we would have time to think about these things afterward, and that’s what we are challenged to do. We are invited to think about this amazing way that Jesus would reveal to us what power really looks like.


Yes, the story has a happy ending. We’ll talk more about that next week, but we don’t need to be unaware of how costly it was for Jesus to show what God’s love looks like. And how hard it remains for us disciples to follow him.


It’s not just hard, it’s all but impossible. But with God all things are possible – even our own redemption. Thanks be to God. Amen

Lent 5b

March 19, 2018

The Unspoken Truth

Jeremiah 31:31-34

31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


The prophet Jeremiah lived a tough life. He lived during a difficult period of time for the nation of Israel, and his life was made even more difficult by his compulsion to speak truth to power. At an early age he felt called by God to do this work of exposing the unrighteousness of their nation, and while he initially resisted the prophetic role that God called him to assume, he came to fully embrace it. And he suffered for it. Jeremiah was known for his ability to clearly reveal how the people of Israel were offending God in their personal lives as well as through the public policies of their kings and priests. What Jeremiah had to say was not well received by the various kings that assumed the throne during his long life, and while they never could bring themselves to actually kill him – they didn’t hesitate to have him beaten, imprisoned, and otherwise humiliated.


Jeremiah lived about 6oo years before Jesus was born, and he was living in Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel, in 587 BCE when the Babylonians ransacked their country and destroyed the Temple. Jeremiah had seen this coming, and he had offered an avenue for salvation, but neither the people nor the leaders wanted to hear it, and the nation fell. Those were dark days for the people of Israel. The Temple was destroyed, their king and all of the other leaders of their nation were carried off into exile, and it appeared that they had been abandoned by God.


Jeremiah might well have used that occasion to say, I told you so, but that’s not what he chose to say. Jeremiah remained in Judah while the bulk of the population was in exile, but he continued to speak to the people, and he had a new message. The new message was that this experience of destruction and exile was not the consequence of being abandoned by God – it was the beginning of the new way in which God would be present with them. Yes, their circumstance was the consequence of their unfaithful behavior, but their relationship with God was not destroyed. They could learn from what had occurred, and their relationship with God would be enhanced.


That is the context of these words we have from Jeremiah. Jeremiah was writing words of comfort and support to people who’s lives had been totally disrupted and their understanding of God was in question. They considered the Temple to be the place where God was encountered – they considered the Temple to be the dwelling place of God, and the Babylonians had turned it in to a pile of rubble. They weren’t sure what to make of that, and Jeremiah was offering an answer. The Temple was gone, but God was still present. Their leaders were humiliated, but the word of God was still available. In fact, the word of God had become more available to them.


I don’t know about you, but I find these words to be powerfully compelling. I love this idea of God’s word being placed directly inside of our hearts. I’m thinking it’s the first form of direct deposit. It’s not a paycheck that’s being deposited, but God chose to directly deposit this most significant asset directly in to our hearts. And I’m thinking this would have been such good news to these people who were accustomed to their wellbeing being brokered by this institution that had totally crumbled. It would have given them hope for a new future.


It wasn’t a guarantee for a new and successful future, but it revealed the possibility for a new way of living in relationship with God, and even though they often strayed from living in a faithful relationship with God – the people of Israel believed that their wellbeing was in the hands of God.


It was a huge tragedy, but in some ways, this national catastrophe was a levelling event for the people of Israel. It removed the necessity of a qualified agent to stand between God and God’s people.


This may not have been good news to the class of people who held the priestly franchise, but they weren’t really in a good position to dispute these good words from Jeremiah. He was providing an interpretation of what happened that made sense and he was offering hope for the present and the future. They were in a horrible circumstance, but Jeremiah was saying that God was with them where they were.


Having personal access to God’s instruction is a great gift to us all, but that doesn’t mean we always know what to do with it. Just because you have something doesn’t mean you know how to use it. I think we can all testify to moments when we didn’t pay attention to some vital information.


For some reason this text reminded me of an experience I had with a tennis racquet one time. I’m better at hitting stationary objects than I am at hitting things that are coming at me quickly, so I’ve just never really embraced tennis. But I go along with other people who want to play, and I was out with some family members one summer morning at a tennis court. We had finished playing, and I started hitting the ball straight up in the air. I kept trying to hit it higher and higher, and I was getting some good attention, so I was swinging harder and harder, and it culminated in a swing that was so hard I couldn’t stop the racquet before I hit myself in the head with it.


I didn’t pass out immediately, but I knew I had taken a significant blow. I put my hands to my head to stop the bleeding, and I kept them there until I got to a nearby bathroom where a Dr. friend was also on hand. He had me remove my hands from my head, and as soon as I saw the knot and the blood I immediately passed out.


I’m the only person I’ve ever known who has knocked their-self out. I don’t guess if was technically a knock-out blow, but it was close.


I think the thing that story illustrates to me is how unaware I was of what I was doing – and the dangerous trajectory my actions had placed me upon. As far as I know, there haven’t been any lasting consequences of that stiff blow to my head, but you never know about such things. That actually could explain a lot about what I’m inclined to do and not do.


But I think we are often unaware of the trajectories of our lives. God has placed some divine wisdom within each of us, but it’s not unusual for us to engage in some personal foolishness – and I’m not just talking about doing stupid things with tennis racquets. The really unfortunate things we do have more to do with ignoring the plight of the poor, advancing initiatives that serve ourselves, getting overly focused on things that don’t matter, and glossing over the things that do. God places good information in our hearts, but that doesn’t mean we pay attention to it.


I’m not convinced that the words of the Prophet Jeremiah would be any more welcomed here in Arkansas right now than they were in Judah before the fall of the Temple. In fact just as Jeremiah was blamed by the false prophets of his day for being discouraging to the people, and I’m guessing he would be accused of doing the same for us.


Prophets are never well regarded by the communities that they serve. And even though Jeremiah was seen as someone who was bringing an ominous forecast to the people of Judah – he was trying to be helpful. He was viewed as a troublemaker because he wasn’t saying what people wanted to hear, but they would have been far better off if they had listened to what he had to say.


I might not have listened if someone had told me I was going to hit myself in the head if I kept doing what I was doing. It may be that I had to actually do what I did before I would believe it, but I became highly sensitized to the peril I had put myself in, and the need to pay attention to the consequences of my actions.


And that’s the way the people of Israel felt about Jeremiah when they found themselves in Babylon without a king or a temple. They had lost what they thought they needed, but it turns out they still had what they really needed. And so do we.


There are always a lot of things that are not going the way we want them to. We could each generate a pretty good list of the things we don’t consider to be going well on so many different levels. It’s hard to watch a developing disaster and feel helpless to stop it. It’s important to try to bring attention to the situations we believe to be wrong, and I thank God for those people who do the heroic work of speaking truth in situations where it would be easier to remain silent.


It’s hard to speak up when it’s easier to go quietly along with whatever is happening. It’s hard to speak up when you know your perspective won’t be appreciated, but the truth is never contained forever. And it’s always a good thing to aspire to be associated with the truth. There are people who do a good job of keeping the truth contained, and sometimes we get confused about what is true and what is convenient, but you can’t silence the One who is still able to make those direct deposits of truth within our hearts.


God’s truth will always emerge, and God’s people will always find comfort in this reality. We might not be where we want to be when we experience that truth, but God’s willingness to be with us wherever we find ourselves to be will always be good news.


Thanks be to God.



Lent 3b, March 4, 2018

March 5, 2018

The Shocking Truth

John 2:13-22


13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.


For some people, this story of Jesus creating chaos in the Temple is one of the most endearing stories in the Bible. I mean it’s nice to hear about Jesus healing blind people, and relieving other people of all kinds of suffering, but this story of Jesus getting fed up with the way things were operating and tearing up the furniture is the stuff of dreams. This may be one of the most referenced stories in all of the Gospels. People like to point out that there was a day when Jesus had had all he could take, he got mad, and tore some things up.


A lot of people like to think this somehow justifies their own reckless behavior when they get mad and engage in some behavior that’s out of the ordinary, but I don’t think that’s a good use of this passage. Jesus didn’t do what he did because he was having a bad day and he needed to blow off some steam. Jesus wasn’t exercising an early form of road rage when he turned those tables over. He wasn’t being randomly aggressive – Jesus was mad about the way in which God was being portrayed in the very place that was supposed to provide the best access to God.


It is very satisfying to see Jesus spring in to action the way he did, but it was an isolated incidence. Jesus wouldn’t go on to instruct his disciples to disrupt everyone who wasn’t behaving as Godly as they aught to be. Instead, Jesus saw this as an opportunity to gain some good attention. You might say that he used this occasion to destroy the distorted way in which God was being portrayed and to gain the attention of those who were seeking to serve the living God. Jesus was being deliberately shocking in order to make a clear statement.


Of course it didn’t just gain the attention of those who were genuinely wanting to serve God. This got everyone’s attention, and this highly visible act didn’t go over so well with those who were there to sell their stock of unblemished animals or those who held the money changing franchise at the Temple. This drama wasn’t so well received by those who were invested in the system, and there would be some unfortunate consequences for Jesus, but he knew that and he did it anyway.


This was not an easy religious system to navigate. The religious executives required all able and righteous Jews to make the journey to Jerusalem to buy an approved animal with the right kind of money. You can bet a lot of people knew this system wasn’t right, but it’s what they were told they had to do if they wanted to maintain their good standing in the religious community and with God. It was a dreadful operation, and what Jesus did got a lot of people’s attention – which is exactly what he wanted to to.


It’s worth noting that John places this story early on in his account of Jesus. The synoptic gospels all place this story at the end of his ministry, and in the way the other Gospel writers tell the story this was the event that convinced the religious authorities that Jesus must be eliminated. But John does something different with this story. John places it near the beginning of his portrayal of Jesus. It exposes the extent of the conflict that existed between Jesus and the Jewish authorities from the very beginning, but this placement does something else as well. It serves as an invitation to see Jesus as the new Temple. If you wish to encounter the living God you don’t need to go to the Temple – look to Jesus if you want to see God.


It’s widely understood that the Book of John was the last of the gospels to be written and that it was probably produced about 70 years after Jesus had been crucified. The Jewish Temple had actually been destroyed for about 30 years at the time the book of John was written. The Temple was gone, but the Jewish community was held intact through meetings at local synagogues – which were sort of like local churches. But a great rift had developed between the traditional Jewish community and the Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah, and the Jews who followed Jesus weren’t welcome in the synagogues.


This isn’t an easy thing for us to get our minds around, but I think it’s sort of interesting to think of the Book of John as the product of a writer who came out of that rejected Jewish community of believers in Jesus. These people had a very interesting perspective on Jesus. They were living in really harsh circumstances. They weren’t welcome in the traditional Jewish community, and the Roman authorities were suspicious of them, but they found Jesus to be the source of true access to God. And because of that they were willing to deal with the troubles they faced.


I’m sort of getting in to the theological weeds here. What I’m trying to describe is worthy of a chapter in a book instead of a paragraph in a sermon, but what’s not hard to see is that the Gospel of John is different from the other three Gospels. Each of the Gospels have their own special perspective about Jesus and they each reveal different truths about him, but one of the special truths that John wants to convey is that Jesus had become the replacement of the Temple. Jesus had become the place to go to encounter Jesus.


Of course Jesus isn’t a place. He isn’t even a person in the way that we generally encounter people, but we have these stories of Jesus and we have our own prayerfully induced encounters with the living Christ, and it’s by looking to Jesus that we encounter the living God. Jesus destroyed the religious enterprise that was going on at the Temple so that we would come to see him as our new Temple.


I didn’t come up with this on my own. I’m sharing the work of some scholars on this, but it makes sense, and it gives me new appreciation for the Book of John. In my opinion, the Gospel of John can get pretty tiresome in the way it’s written. As opposed to the other gospels that are filled with parables and events that create teaching moments, the Book of John has some really long passages where Jesus seems to be talking about himself. He compares himself to bread to a grapevine, to and to the gate of a sheepfold. Jesus does a lot of talking about himself, but it wasn’t because he wanted to be adored — Jesus wanted us to pay attention to him so that we would find our way to God.


Of course in this passage we actually do have some action to go along with his words. He’s not just comparing himself to the Temple he’s wrecking the Temple so that we will see him as the new Temple. These words about how he would rebuild the Temple in three days is an affirmation he was a Temple that couldn’t be destroyed. People would continue to find access to God through his resurrected presence. Jesus disrupted the Temple because he knew that we sometimes need some kind of shock to get us out of our old ways of thinking and to see life in a new way.


I’ve got a friend named Don who is sort of known for getting himself in to shocking situations. He and his friend, Gene, were nearly killed in a hot-air balloon incident one time, and he was with that same friend on the Arkansas River one day when they encountered another treacherous situation. Gene had gotten a new boat and he invited Don and his parents and some others to go out on the river for a leisurely cruise. They had gone down the river a pretty good way when the weather changed and visibility became very limited. As they headed back to the dock Don said the visibility got so bad he had to lay on his stomach on the front of the boat in order to try to watch where they were going. In spite of this they ran aground and it threw Don into the river.


Don wasn’t hurt, but it was pretty unsettling to everyone on the boat. I’m not sure how far they were from where they were trying to go, but when they came to a familiar rock jetty going out in to the river they decided it would be a good idea to get everyone off the boat. Don’s mother had had a stroke about a year before this and while she was able to move around pretty well she had not been able to speak. At least not until Don told her they needed to get off the boat and on to the rocks. And this woman that hadn’t spoken a word for a year said very clearly: I’m not getting off of this boat.


Sometimes we need a bit of a shock to get our attention and to get us refocused on what is true and essential.


I had a shocking call the other night from a young man I know who struggles with alcohol addiction. He was in the Garland County jail after being arrested for a DWI. He was asking if I could help him post bond to get out of jail. I told him I needed to speak with some of his family about the situation, and after talking to his father I came to believe that the best thing was not to do what he was asking me to do. His father said he was happy he was in a place where he couldn’t drink and that maybe it would help him decide to go in a new direction.


I feel bad for not helping him, but I’m sharing his father’s hope that this will somehow get his attention. A bad experience isn’t a tragedy if it helps us see what’s true and what’s essential. Jesus wasn’t opposed to giving people a hard time if it would help them see what was wrong with what they were doing and where they could find access to true life.


I don’t think it’s easy for any of us to get a clear view of who Jesus is and what he’s calling us to do. Most of us are more comfortable with our view of who we think Jesus is than we are by the sight of who he really is. Sometimes we have some willful ignorance of the truth about Christ, but none of us have a perfect view of who he is and how we can best serve him. Fortunately we can all grow in our understanding of Christ, and some of the most revealing encounters with Christ are the result of shocking failures.


None of us like to have our worlds upended, but sometimes a good shock can bring us to our senses and help us find our voices. Thanks be to God for all the ways – large and small, that enable us to let go of our false idols and to see the truth of our living and loving God.


Thanks be to God.


Lent 2b, February 25, 2018

February 26, 2018


Do What !!??

Mark 8:31-38


31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”


I didn’t really intend to get caught up in Olympic Fever this year, and I didn’t get all wrapped up in it, but I had a few feverish moments. I have mixed emotions about the Olympics. I love seeing the amazing things these athletes can do, but it’s a high anxiety experience for me. The Olympics are painful to watch and they are irresistible. But I can’t not watch it if I’m within sight of it, and I find myself making myself available to watch it. The extent of ability and commitment that these athletes exhibit is off the scale. I know it’s an honor to simply be in the Olympics, and on some level I don’t want any of them to lose. But I choose my favorites and I can feel pretty devastated when they lose.


Maddie Bowman was the defending Gold Medalist in the women’s half-pipe competition and she fell near the end of each of her three attempts. I had never even watched the women’s half-pipe competition before, but I got pulled in to her story and I felt so bad for her. I’ve been haunted by the image of her laying on the ground after her third crash. She wasn’t physically injured, but you could tell she was experiencing some deep pain. The line between greatness and devastation is so narrow and the consequences are so dramatic. I enjoy it when my chosen team or competitor wins, but I feel for the losers, and I think I spend more time thinking about what it feels like to finish off the podium.


Head to head competition in pursuit of gold medals isn’t exactly the thing Jesus directed us to practice, but I think there’s a lot for us Christians to learn from these world-class athletes. They are people who fully understand how narrow the path can be that leads to greatness. And Jesus did want us to find our way in to greatness. He wanted us to be world-class children of God.


You don’t arrive at the Olympics by coasting along with the crowd. You’ve also got to go out of your way to be a disciple of Christ, and in that sense there’s a strong parallel between becoming an Olympic athlete and a follower of Jesus Christ. And it may be that those athletes who make it all the way to the pinnacle of their sport – and then lose, are the people who can provide us with the greatest lessons about the value of loss.


But they don’t focus much attention on the stories of losers on television. They do tell some good comeback stories – stories of people who lose and then come back four years later to redeem themselves, but this is where the pursuit of greatness as Jesus described it and the pursuit of gold medals diverge. On the most visceral level, Jesus wanted us to be willing to lose.


You might say Jesus was in his peak performance condition when he told his disciples that the time had come for him to go to Jerusalem, where he would be arrested and executed by a group of men the disciples would have considered to be the biggest losers.


I don’t think any of us have a hard time understanding why Peter reacted the way he did to what Jesus was saying. In fact it’s so much easier to understand where Peter was coming from than to get what Jesus was saying.


We get where Peter was coming from. It’s easy to get in to the mind of Peter. The mind of Jesus is something else, but we get Peter. Peter had his own plans – he thought he could see where this thing with Jesus was going and he liked it. They were headed to the top! Things were falling in to place. People were talking about Jesus. People were looking for Jesus. People were getting excited about Jesus. Things were about to start happening in Israel.


It had become clear to Peter that Jesus was the real deal. He trusted that Jesus had come from God to be the savior of the nation. In fact Peter had just made that pronouncement. He had just finished professing his belief that Jesus was the messiah. And that was no small deal because such a belief had profound implications! Unfortunately Peter didn’t understand what those implications really were.


Actually, Peter’s plans made a lot of sense – in a human sense. It makes sense to want to replace terroristic systems with more humane systems. And it’s not that Peter’s plans were poorly motivated. The way the nation of Israel was being run was horrible. The Roman installed governor had no concern for the wellbeing of the people of Israel. The system was designed to keep Roman rule in place at all costs, and it was a very costly system. The people were heavily taxed and the policies were violently enforced. The Jewish collaborators substituted allegiance to God for job security and material comforts, and you can’t blame Peter for wanting this ungodly arrangement to go down in defeat by the hand of this man of God.


What made sense to Peter was for Jesus to fix their broken nation. Peter expected Jesus to somehow assemble an army that God would somehow empower to overthrow those dirty collaborators and their godless government. This is the kind of plan good people generally develop, but it’s not what Jesus had in mind.


It’s not easy to get in the mind of Jesus, but he gave Peter and the other disciples a piece of his mind, and we need to hear what he had to say. Because what he had to say is informative of how we are to operate as well. Our challenge is not to operate with human sense, but with divine sense.


This is hard logic to embrace. We like to do whatever we can to win the gold and have a medal to prove it, and Jesus seems to want us to embrace the wisdom of losing. This isn’t exactly what Jesus is teaching, but it’s exactly what it feels like on some level. I believe Jesus wants us to excel, but excelling in the enterprise of discipleship is so different from being a winner in almost every other field.


I think I’ve probably talked about Dietrich Bonhoeffer before, but you might say he was a gold-medal winning disciple. He wasn’t out to be noted in that way, but he truly excelled in following Christ at a crucial moment in world history. Bonhoeffer was born in to a very prominent family in Germany. Both of his parents descended from notable artists, teachers, theologians, and politicians. One of the things his family was known for was their idealism, and on more than one occasion this characteristic was very costly for them. His great grandfather and great uncles were all imprisoned for periods of time for their political convictions. So it’s not surprising that Bonheoffer would be arrested during World War II for his work to undermine the Nazi agenda. Nor is it a surprise that he would be executed a short time before the war came to an end.


Like Jesus, Bonhoeffer had friends who begged him to pursue a less dangerous path. Bonhoeffer was in the United States when war broke out in Europe, and he made the decision to return to his home to help steer things in a better way. His friends told him how effective he could be as a teacher in this country, and they weren’t wrong about that, but Bonhoeffer seemed to have his mind on divine things and not on human things. It was a logic that caused him to literally lose his life, and it’s the kind of logic that Jesus said would make him proud and not ashamed.


I wish I could say that Jesus was being very metaphorical when he talked about losing our lives in order to gain real life – and I wish I could find some way to make the metaphor easy to accept. But I think Jesus was being both literal and metaphorical, and both directives are hard to hear.


Honestly, these words of Jesus scare me. I don’t want life to be so hard. I don’t want Christianity to be so costly. But I do want what Jesus offers. I want real community. I want eternal peace. I want true joy. And Jesus offers all of these things, but the way to obtain them is costly. Jesus didn’t just say he was going to Jerusalem to die a miserable death. I think this is all that Peter and the disciples heard, but Jesus didn’t fail to add that after three days he would be raised from the dead. Jesus wasn’t just inviting us to go down a road of difficulty and pain. Jesus wants us to follow him down the road that leads to abundant life.


Following Jesus is not just difficult. We’re called to follow Jesus if we want to find life. I don’t speak as one who knows this road well, but I trust that Jesus is right about this. I’m grateful to say that I haven’t heard a clear call to risk everything I hold dear in order to follow Christ, but I also know it can happen. It has happened to people like ourselves throughout history, and it can happen to us.


Like Peter, I don’t think any of us really want to hear what Jesus had to say about where he intended to go and what he intended to do to reveal the saving grace of God, but to ignore this truth is to ignore the presence of God. Jesus wanted us to understand that true comfort comes through acts of sacrificial love, real security comes through intentional vulnerability, and genuine happiness comes to us when we become less attached to the treasures of this world.


I don’t like being the bearer of this really tough news. I don’t like being called upon to remind you of how difficult this calling of Christ really is. I don’t enjoy pointing out that the positions we struggle to carve out for ourselves are often at odds with the logic that Jesus called us to embrace. I don’t know what you were hoping to hear this morning, but since this is the season of Lent and this is the heart of what Jesus taught I thought I should go ahead and deal with it for a little while.


As Peter and the rest of us have come to realize, things aren’t always going to go the way we want them to, and that’s a painful truth, but we are involved in a design of life that’s a lot larger than we can imagine. And sometimes those things that feel like terrible failures become the very things that enable us to draw closer to God.


I know we all hate to lose, but Jesus wanted us to hate our fear of losing. Jesus wanted us to love God regardless of what we may encounter in life, and if we can do that we will never lose.


Thanks be to God for the access we have to the eternal love of God regardless of what may be happening in the moment. This is the good news that God has provided for us and the source of hope that never fails.


Thanks be to God.



Called to Listen

Mark 9:2-9


2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


For a couple of summers when I was a young teenager I worked for a good United Methodist man named Author Weeden, who was a building contractor. Mr. Weeden was a kind and soft spoken man, and I enjoyed being around him, but he didn’t spend a lot of time at the jobsite where I was posted. His head carpenter was a really large man named Charles who wasn’t so soft spoken. I’ve never been in the Marines, but in my mind, Charles could play the role of a Marine drill-sergeant. He could give orders well, and he liked to keep me busy. If there wasn’t something that needed to be done he would create something for me to do. I clearly remember the day he had me move a pile of broken blocks from one spot to another – just so I had something to do. Charles needed for me to stay in motion.


Working under that kind of supervision wasn’t a bad experience for me. Keeping busy isn’t something I avoid, but I’m not inclined to believe it’s the most important thing for us to do. There’s some wisdom behind that old saying, Don’t just stand there – do something!

Civilization has advanced because of people who weren’t content to stand around and do nothing. But staying busy isn’t always the most important thing to do. Sometimes we spring in to action when we would be better served by the wisdom of standing still and listening.


This morning’s passage portrays such a moment. These three disciples follow Jesus up the mountain where they have an experience that can’t be compared to anything else they’ve ever encountered in their lives. They see Jesus transfigured in front of them and then they see him talking to Moses and Elijah. Mark doesn’t use the word, stupefied, to describe how Peter, James, and John must have felt, but I think that’s a fitting way to describe how they felt. They were shocked and frightened and their immediate response was to do something. At least Peter’s response was to suggest that they do something. His anxious reaction to the situation was to say to Jesus that they should build three dwellings to commemorate the occasion, but he had hardly finished speaking when they were overshadowed by a cloud and they heard these words, This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.


My friend and mentor, Rev. Lewis Chesser, likes to play around with phrases and ideas, and on more than one occasion when I shared with him some puzzling circumstance he responded with these words, Don’t just do something, stand there!


And there’s some wisdom behind those words. I think this is the wisdom that confronted Peter when that cloud came over them, and it’s the kind of wisdom we need to maintain in our hearts and minds if we want to abide in the Kingdom of God. But we don’t just need to stand still and do nothing – we need to learn to listen to Jesus.


And this is a difficult thing – this listening to Jesus. Building a shrine on the top of that mountain to commemorate the occasion wouldn’t have been an easy thing to do, but it was the kind of thing they understood the most, and it would have been much easier than the thing the voice from the cloud told them to do. It’s always easier to do the kind of work that’s familiar to us than to hear words that challenge our familiar ways of thinking and behaving.


Listening to Jesus was a hard thing for the good Jews of Jesus’ day to do because he wasn’t promising to restore the nation of Israel in the way that they were wanting it to be restored. Listening to Jesus was hard because just prior to this mountaintop experience he had told his disciples he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified. This was not what they were wanting to hear from the person they had dropped everything to follow. They had fully invested themselves in the movement he had begun, and they weren’t understanding the way in which it was going to pay off. Listening to Jesus was hard because he didn’t build on familiar understandings of the way God’s kingdom was going to come.


I don’t always hear Jesus well – in fact I don’t always try very hard to listen for what Jesus taught, but I’m reminded that as Christians, this is what we are all called to do. We need to be reminded to listen to Jesus because it’s easy for us to lose focus on his words and to allow other messages to fill our minds with anxiety, jealousy, fear, and distrust. Fortunately we are in good company when it comes to having a hard time keeping our minds focused on the words of Jesus. Jesus’ number one disciple, Simon Peter, had a hard time listening to Jesus.


There on the mountain, Peter had started talking when he needed to be listening. And six days earlier Jesus had rebuked Peter for not listening to what he was saying – that was right after Peter had recognized and announced that Jesus was the messiah. Peter could get it – and then he could lose it. And get it again, and lose it again.


I’m so familiar with this holy roller-coaster. I go up and down on it all the time. I do it every week – several times a week. As a preacher, I find myself needing to think about the things Jesus said and did and what he wanted us to see and to do, and I try hard to figure out how to get you to see what I’m thinking Jesus would want us to understand. I get real focused on Jesus almost every week – for a little while. I don’t know if I’m able to communicate what I hear Jesus saying, but on some level I try to listen to something Jesus said every week, and sometimes I get it. I get it – and then I lose it.


I can turn around quicker than Peter. I can go from loving Jesus and wanting to follow him to strategizing about how I can get what I think I need to make my life a bit more comfortable or interesting without breaking my stride. It’s an amazing quality that I share with Peter. Maybe you do too.


Fortunately there are those moments in our lives that cause us to stop what we are mindlessly doing and stand stupefied in the presence of God. People generally describe profound experiences with the presence of God as mountaintop experiences, and certainly our story this morning portrays such an encounter as occurring high up a mountain, but these profoundly holy moments are as likely to occur in the valley of death. Certainly people have profoundly happy and ecstatic experiences that they would label as encounters with the living God, but in many cases the place where we come in contact with the profound holiness of God is when we are in the midst of staggering loss.


In fact I don’t know how else to describe the way in which some people endure the kind of pain that this world can produce other than by saying they were sustained by the hand of the living God. People who live through terrible ordeals don’t look back on their trials with happy nostalgia, but it’s not unusual for people to be able to identify the ways in which God came to them in very real ways during those difficult times.


You can’t separate this experience that Peter, James, and John had with Jesus on the mountaintop from their journey to Jerusalem – the place Jesus had announced that he was going and that he would be crucified there. This journey up the mountain took place at a very dark moment in their lives – the Kingdom of God wasn’t coming in a manner that they were happy about.


But we don’t have to experience a profound loss or tragedy in order to have a form of a mountaintop spiritual experience. There are other ways in which we find ourselves stupefied by the presence of God. I think it’s a gift from God anytime we find ourselves struck speechless by an encounter in life. I think any kind of an experience that pulls us out of our routine way of thinking is an experience that can put us in touch with the extra-ordinary presence of God. We humans like our routines and we like to know what to expect and what’s going to happen next, but it’s the surprises of life that are the most nourishing to our souls. It’s those experiences that we don’t know how to navigate that provide us with the best opportunities to be quiet and to listen for instruction from God.


I think it’s probably a lot easier for us to listen to Jesus when we’ve given up on our own strategies, and thankfully there are those moments when we are in need of a new way of thinking and seeing. And once you realize this I think it becomes more natural to seek the wisdom of Jesus. I actually think we can become better at listening for Jesus, but it takes some effort. I believe we have to work at letting go of our natural inclinations and to trust in that quieter voice that we can only hear when we stop what we are doing and thinking and seek to allow those subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit to inform us.


Life often fails to follow the course we would design for ourselves, and that’s not so bad. The journey up the mountain with Jesus doesn’t follow a familiar path. It’s new territory for all of us, and as Peter would testify, it can bring you to a terrifying place, but when we don’t know what to say or do we’re probably standing on holy ground. God is with us when we’re standing there, and God will help us find our way.


Thanks be to God for those moments when we don’t know what to do other than to stand still. That’s when we are most likely to hear the words of Jesus, who knows what we need to hear, and who wants us to find our way in to the place where we find an eternal source of grace and peace.


Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Touched By Grace

Mark 1:29-39

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. 



This story of Jesus entering the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and providing her with instantaneous healing isn’t an experience that most people have. Experiences of healing and restoration happen on some level in all of our lives, but these things usually take place over a period of time. There are those moments when people feel immediately released from some kind of crippling condition, and sometimes those things happen in miraculous ways, but this isn’t an experience that most of us have had.


I haven’t had what you would call an instantaneous and miraculous experience of being healed from a debilitating condition, but I do know what it feels like to be rather suddenly released from a form of bondage. It isn’t on the level of being healed from cancer or restored to life from some other life-threatening condition, but I did have a life-altering experience in the time it takes to get a haircut.


You can’t really tell by what remains of my hair today, but back when I used to have hair it was really curly. But it wasn’t soft wavy hair that hung down in relatively predictable places. It was actually more frizzy than curly. My hair didn’t hang down in any way – it stood up. It defied gravity and resisted any kind of effort to be tamed.


I wore a lot of hats when I was an early teenager. I still wear a lot of hats, but now it’s to protect my scalp not to contain my hair. I was terribly self-conscious of my hair. The cool thing when I was growing up was to have hair hanging over your ears and down in your eyes, and my hair wasn’t inclined to go down over anything. It was a daily battle for me for all of my Jr. High years and in to the 10th grade to get my hair to lay down in some satisfactory fashion.


I know I’m talking about a cosmetic issue, but when you’re a young teenager cosmetics are pretty important. I wasn’t thinking about the meaning of life – I was thinking about what I looked like to my friends. It really did give me a lot of grief, but a wonderful thing came along in my life – the television show Soul Train.


I guess the show was actually filmed out in California each Saturday during the morning, but over in Wynne and I’m sure here in Newport, Soul Train came on around 10:30 on Saturday night, and I loved watching that show. It was an amazing show. It featured many current musicians, but the best thing about the show was to see the way the guests on the show would dance and dress. A big part of the show was showing people dancing to the music of the day, and it was new and different. The appearance and the moves of the people on Soul Train was outrageous and wonderful, and suddenly it became cool to have a big head of hair that went up and not down – and I could do that. And I did do that.


One Saturday in 1974 my mother took me to the Kings Den hair salon in Memphis where I instructed the hair stylist to give me what they called a natural. I told her I wanted her to cut my hair in a manner that I wouldn’t ever have to try to comb it again and she did. I never had what you would call a really powerful afro. It never stood up and out remarkably far, but the truth is that I really haven’t tried to comb my hair with anything other than my fingers since 1974. Thanks to the aesthetics that were brought into our society by Soul Train, one of my most personal and daily dilemmas was resolved. I owe a lot to the late, Don Cornelius, who founded Soul Train, and to all the outrageous characters that appeared on that wonderful show.


As I say, this isn’t on the level of being healed from cancer, but this was a life-altering experience for me. Embracing a new hair style removed what had become one of my most personal daily dilemmas.


And it’s worth noting that my liberation from daily hair trauma was the result of some human touch. The human touch is a powerfully good thing. We’re told that Jesus took Simon’s ailing mother-in-law by the hand and lifted her up. Clearly Mark felt that this detail of taking her by the hand was important. I think this is an indication of how important it is for us to be in touch with each other.


This powerful social movement that Jesus initiated wasn’t just an enterprise of the head. It was an exercise of the whole being. Some people needed to hear something different, but other people needed a hand. In a world where people are held captive by different forces of evil, it will take a variety of different experiences with the living Christ to break unholy bonds.


The word got out in Capernaum that Jesus was on hand and using his hands to set people free from all kinds of ailments, and the people showed up. Word of a good thing will bring out a crowd. People don’t like to be left behind when a good thing is going on. Many people’s lives were made whole by the fact that they showed up a Simon and Andrew’s house that one Saturday night in Capernaum. It’s not a bad idea to show up where you hear a good thing is going on. Being part of a crowd can have it’s advantages.


Soul Train was a successful television show because it provided something on television that a lot of people were hungry to see. I would say it was a good television show because it gave exposure to some extraordinary musicians who had been stuck in some ordinary venues. It was an inspiring show to many young people who were feeling pretty overlooked, and it provided relief to some people who were needing to see a new way to look. A good movement can be a healing thing, but as Jesus was quick to point out – it can also be important to move on.


Jesus wasn’t one to get stuck in one place. Jesus knew the danger of a movement of people. He knew that he could have become nothing more than a spectacle – someone who could do miraculous things. But that’s not all that he was out to do. Jesus wanted to provide all people with a whole new way of experiencing God, and he couldn’t have done that if he had stuck around Simon’s house. This soul saving movement that he had begun required him to stay on the move. He wasn’t capable of reaching out and physically touching every person who heard that he was in town, but he also knew that he had a message to spread, and that message could touch more people than he would ever be able to lay his hands upon.


I’m sure this came as cold comfort to the desperate people who were waiting at Simon’s house for Jesus to return, and I know we all wonder at times why Jesus won’t step in to the house and bring us what we can so earnestly seek, but I think we all have to trust that we can get what we need from Jesus even if we don’t get what we want from him.


Jesus wanted to provide us all with relief from all the ways we suffer, but more than that he wanted us to know that God is with us in our suffering. It’s not a bad thing for us to seek relief from suffering, and it’s an important thing for us to be engaged in the work of bringing relief from suffering, but Jesus relieved suffering in order for us to understand that God isn’t the cause of our suffering – and there was a lot of misunderstanding about that.


The pervasive thinking of the day was that our troubles were the result of God’s displeasure. People who experienced terrible afflictions were also tormented by the judgement of those who considered their troubles to be the consequence of unfaithful living. Certainly there are some troubles we bring on ourselves, but Jesus wanted us all to know that God is with us in times of trouble – not the source of our troubles.


This truth would become painfully obvious when Jesus met his death on a cross, but it’s what Jesus had been trying to reveal from the very beginning of his ministry.


This story of Jesus entering the home of Simon Peter’s mother in law and lifting her up from her sickness has a pretty clear message. The message is that God was at work in the life of Jesus Christ to bring healing to us all. He wasn’t able to touch everyone who showed up at her house to get their own instantaneous miracle, but Jesus lifted her up so that she could do what she could for others. For whatever reason, God isn’t able to provide us all with instantaneous relief, but God doesn’t want us to suffer, and God wants us to join in the divine work of reaching out with compassion to one another.


Jesus didn’t just come to provide us all with relief from whatever’s ailing us. Jesus could have spent the remainder of his time on earth at Simon’s mother-in-law’s house if that had been the case. They hadn’t finished supper before there was a line out her door waiting to see him, and he did see many of them, but his mission was larger than the dispensing of miracles. The miracles were powerful and they changed people’s lives, but those individual miracles only served to reinforce the message that he came to proclaim.


Mark doesn’t repeat what that message was, but we know what Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry, and the message was for us to repent and believe in the good news that God’s kingdom is near. Jesus wanted us to let go of our old ways of thinking and to see the truth. He wanted us to see life in a new way and to experience the nearness of God.


It’s a wonderful thing to have an experience that totally transforms your life in a good way. I’m eternally grateful for the relief I experienced when I was able to let go of my battle with my hair. I hate that I was so traumatized by such a trivial thing, but I’m grateful for that liberating experience.


I believe when we are touched by others in healing ways we become more sensitive to the needs of others and of the importance of doing what we can to provide healing and comfort. I believe God uses us all to be the bearers of this good news that God is near at all the moments of our lives. Jesus didn’t just come to fix us – he came to be with us, and he remains with us still.


Thanks be to God.



Cleaning the House of The Lord

Mark 1:21-28


21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


A couple of years ago I took some continuing education courses that were taught by a man who was a specialist in the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy. That’s a grand portrayal of a relatively simple concept, which is that current problems are generally the result of previous problems. Whether those problems are happening within institutions or in the lives of individuals there’s usually some form of behavior that was tolerated or even encouraged over previous generations that caused the current problematic situation. Now this isn’t a reason to place all the blame on parents for the unfortunate behavior of their children. We all know life is much more complicated than that, but our instructor wanted us to be aware of the ways in which our own upbringing conditioned us to respond to current situations in certain ways, and that the way our own parents raised us was conditioned by the circumstances that shaped their lives. The same can be said for issues that arise within institutions and organizations.


As you might imagine, this looking backward can get pretty convoluted and difficult to interpret, but I think it’s accurate to say that we are all somehow conditioned to respond to the stresses of life in particular ways, and that the way we are conditioned to react isn’t always the best way to react. This course I took was designed for pastors, and the goal of the course was to help us see how we could react to unhealthy situations in healthier ways. It’s a noble goal, and there’s some truth to it.


Our instructor, Rev. Doug Hester, wanted to help us see our own selves more clearly so that we could interpret the dynamics of our churches more clearly and be less reactionary in our work. Like individuals, churches sort of have personalities, and we all know that the way the personality of a pastor reacts to the personality of a church isn’t always pretty. Situations can develop that feel threatening to pastors and churches and neither institutions nor individuals generally react well to threatening situations.


All this comes to mind in light of the interaction between Jesus and this man who is described as having an unclean spirit. We don’t really know how that spirit manifested itself in the life this man, but we would be more likely to define the man as being terribly unhealthy. This man’s life was torn up in a significant and obvious way. From the way he spoke of himself there was something foreign in control of his life, and Jesus was a threat to that unwelcome invader.


We don’t know if this man regularly attended events at the synagogue of if he happened in that day for the first time. Either situation is plausible to me.


It could be that this synagogue had not only learned to adapt to the unfortunate condition of the man with an unclean spirit, but they had made special accommodations for him. It wouldn’t have been an ideal situation, but they may well have felt threatened by his condition and they accommodated him in order to keep him relatively happy. In fact that might well have become their main objective. We don’t know the relationship between this sick man and the synagogue but it may be that this man with an unclean spirit had been comfortable within that synagogue until Jesus showed up to teach, and what Jesus said was very threatening to the sick man’s circumstances.


Religious institutions can be very accommodating to unhealthy agendas. You might say this is one of the most obvious lessons we can learn from the way Jesus interacted with the religious leaders of his day. The very own son of God was rejected by the elders of Israel. And there’s no end to evil that has been committed in the name of Jesus Christ. Religious institutions can go off the rails. In fact the amazing thing is when a religious organization is able to remain on the rails.


That being said, I want to commend this church for the degree of health that you are able to maintain. I’m not saying you’ve got it all figured out and there’s nothing you need to work on. I’m sure there are things I could point out that you would consider to be more along the lines of meddling instead of preaching, but in all honesty, I consider this to be an unusually healthy church. It may just be that my religious blindness matches up well with your particular pathology, but for what it’s worth I will tell anyone that this is the most functional church I’ve ever served. You have caused me less anxiety than any of my previous appointments. I’m still going to retire, but it’s not because of you.


My first appointment wasn’t so fortunate – for them or for me. Had I been well trained in the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy I might have reacted differently to some things that occurred and we all might have been better off, but I didn’t and we weren’t. It was a rough two and half years.


After I had been there for about a year, the chair of the Pastor Parish Relations Committee, who now rests from her labors, didn’t really want me to leave, but she wanted me to do things differently, and she conducted a phone survey in order to generate further evidence to support her position. She actually presented me with a typed report of her findings. She labelled it as an unbiased report of the complaints and praises that members of that church had expressed to her, and I think she thought I would be glad to get it. I’m hoping I can find that document as I go through my boxes of papers over the next few months. I’ve misplaced it, but it really is one of the most interesting things that was ever presented to me.


That was not a happy period of time for me, but as we say about those difficult times of our lives that we survive – it was a learning experience. And it did prompt a conversation with a man that I’ll always treasure.


I stopped in one day to visit one of the members of the church, and it turned out that he had been the recipient of one of those phone-survey calls. Hobart Simers was his name. He was an elderly man who had worked as a mechanic for the railroad company. A memorable thing about him was that he never owned an automobile. He was able to walk to work, and when he and his wife wanted to go on a trip they would go by train. He was about the last of the generation that could live like that. I enjoyed visiting with him, and when I went by to see him that day he told me that he had gotten a call from a woman in the church who asked him what he thought of the preacher. He said he told her he thought I was doing ok, but she pressed him. He told me that she said there were some people in the church who didn’t really like what I was doing. And he said he told her that there were some people who didn’t like what Jesus Christ was doing, but that didn’t mean he was doing anything wrong.


That comment didn’t show up on the survey, but him telling me that is one of the great gifts that anyone has ever given to me. It’s right up there with my diploma from the Clark School of Lawnmower Repair.


Churches and/or pastors can go off the rails, but the words of Jesus can bring us to our senses. What Hobart Simers said to me was very healing to me – it brought me to my senses. It calmed me down. He spoke words that reminded me of who Jesus was and maybe even how Jesus was with me. I’m not saying there weren’t things I needed to do differently, but the words that came from Hobart were so much more authoritative than the words that were in that survey.



What we have in this lesson from Mark this morning is a portrayal of the healing power of the words of Jesus. Jesus had a level of authority that the world had never seen, and he used his authority to restore life to those who’s lives were possessed by all kinds of disease.


Those of us who seek to follow Jesus don’t have the same kind of authority that he possessed, but I think a story like this can help us understand the source of true authority and how we are to use the authority and power we do have. Jesus was threatening to the unclean spirit that had invaded the man who stepped in to the synagogue, and I think that’s a worthy goal for us all to embrace. We are to be people who are threatening unclean spirits.


I believe Jesus was able to challenge the unclean thing that was in control of that man’s life because Jesus was so clear about who it was that was in control of his life. The authority that Jesus possessed was rooted in the understanding of where he came from and who he represented. Unlike most of us, who are shaped by a multitude of competing authorities that ruled the lives of those who came before us, Jesus was unconflicted about his roots. Jesus knew where he came from and who he came to reveal. Jesus was the man who perfectly represented God, and Jesus can help us understand our own connection with God.


I believe Jesus can help us all become more clear about who it is that rules our lives and who it is we seek to serve. I’m not an authority on the Murray Bowen Family Systems School of Therapy, but I’ve got two continuing education credits in the area, and with that I feel authorized to say that we are well served by the exercise of stepping back and looking at the various authorities that continue to shape our lives. I truly believe there are powerful systems at work in our lives that we don’t fully understand but who cause us to do things and to behave in ways that does not bring glory to God and comfort to our neighbors.


But it helps to look at Jesus, and to seek his healing power. I guess we are all in need of a miracle of some kind to help us get over whatever it is that keeps us from being the loving and trusting child of God that we were created to be. We all have our obstacles to overcome, and I believe God wills for us to be healed and to grow in our relationship with God. I don’t know why it’s all so hard and why people suffer the way they do. For whatever reason, our world is full of powers and systems that cause death and destruction instead of peace and harmony. We are all touched by those death-dealing powers that distract us from the presence of God in this world, but the power and authority of Jesus Christ is with us as well, and it’s a beautiful thing when his words and presence touch us and bring us back to life.


That miracle happens every now and then, and when it does it changes everything. It makes life rich and beautiful. We all have our struggles, but we aren’t alone, and thanks be to God for that.


Thanks be to God that the love and authority of Jesus Christ breaks through the complex systems and the random chaos of this world to touch us and to use us. Healing happens. Life prevails.


Thanks be to God.





Snagged by Christ

Mark 1:14-20


14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


I don’t think my father ever wondered what he was going to do when he grew up. He had some interests outside of the car business, but I don’t think he ever wanted to do anything other than to operate the Chevrolet & Oldsmobile dealership that my grandfather started. He loved Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles and he enjoyed being in the business of selling them. There were people who expected me to carry on the family business, but I was not one of those people, and neither was my father. He would have been happy for me to do that, but he knew better than to push me in to something I wasn’t cut-out to do. I agonized over what kind of work I wanted to do, but I was pretty clear about one thing, I was not cut out for the car business.


I worked at my father’s business when I was in high school and even for a summer after my freshman year in college, but my area of expertise was in washing cars not selling them. I took pride in my car-washing ability, and I enjoyed the company of the men who worked in the body shop. The three men who worked in the body shop had been there for decades, and in addition to knowing how to repair damaged cars they were accomplished comedians. They were highly skilled at exploiting any weakness they observed in whoever happened to step in to their domain. Of course I was the unfortunate object of much of their comic attention, but it was worth it because they put on a good show and I wasn’t always the focus of their routine.


Whenever I was back in town from college and then from seminary I would drop by my father’s business and I always made it a point to step in to the body shop and provide them with an opportunity to generate some commentary on something I wouldn’t want to hear. I didn’t get by very often after we came back to Arkansas and I began my work in ministry, but I’ll never forget the conversation I had with one of those men, W.D. Johnson, when I dropped by for one of the last trips I ever made to my father’s business. Daddy had announced his own retirement. The business was going to close and he was going to sell his building to the Ford dealer in town.


W.D. pulled me to the side, he looked straight in to my eyes and asked me why I hadn’t come back and kept the business going. Under circumstances like that I can usually think of what to say about an hour later, but somehow I realized what to say at that very moment. I said W.D., if I had chosen to go in to the car business we probably would have closed about five years ago. And he believed me. A big smile spread across his face and he went on to announce to everyone what I had said. And this was the truth. I think I had sold about three cars in my life up to that point and I had lost money on every one of them.


I don’t believe that working as a professional minister is any holier than any other form of honest work. I think I probably thought that at one time, but I’ve known enough shady pastors and genuine salespeople to understand that it’s not so much what you do that pleases God, but how you do whatever you do.


I think this story of the calling of Simon and Andrew and James and John can give the impression that it’s more important to be an official follower of Jesus than to maintain the family fishing business, but I don’t think that’s the right message. These men were offered the rare opportunity to spend day and night with the man who came to change the world, and they made the right choice. They were touched by his powerful presence, and they didn’t have to wonder what they should do when he made the offer to follow him. There is a higher calling than catching fish, and it’s an offer that Jesus makes to all of us – regardless of what we do for a living.


Just prior to this story, Jesus had spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing himself for the work that was before him, he emerged with a clear sense of ultimate reality, and he was ready to talk about it. Jesus knew God, Jesus knew himself, and he knew what he needed to do. Jesus wasn’t deterred by the arrest of John the Baptist, but it’s not like he thought things would go differently for him. Jesus knew he would experience profound resistance, but he also knew that he was in touch with something that could not be stopped by any level of authority that could be generated on earth. Jesus was the man who understood what it meant to abide in the kingdom of God, and he wanted us to understand how to do that as well.


There’s much that’s left undescribed in this morning’s passage. We don’t know if it was a bad day for fishing or a good day. We don’t know if the weather was beautiful or miserable. We don’t know if these were the first people Jesus saw or if he went looking for fishermen. Mark doesn’t give us many details, and by not telling us much I think he’s telling us a lot about the gravity Jesus possessed. His clarity was overwhelming. His presence was compelling.


Jesus had something to offer that was irresistible. When Jesus asked these men to follow him they couldn’t help but to get up and go. It’s as if they had no choice about what to do. It was an instinctual response.


One of the interesting things about the response of these first disciples to Jesus is the lack of analysis that went in to their decision. It doesn’t appear that they thought about what he said, they just did it. I think this speaks to the way in which this faith that we share is not primarily an exercise of the mind – it’s a disposition of the heart. And we can carry that disposition in to whatever it is we are doing.


Of course there are some pretty smart people who have chosen to follow Jesus, and they have made some interesting observations about these stories of Jesus. When I read about Simon and Andrew and James and John they all look like average fishermen to me. Two of them were casting nets on the edge of the lake and two of them were mending nets in a boat along with their father and the hired men. When I read that story they all look similar to me, but Biblical scholars point out that there was a large socio-economic divide between the men who were standing in the water casting their net and the men who worked from boats along with hired men.


And this is an important message for us. The call of Christ is to all of us, and Jesus knows how to speak to all of us. It doesn’t matter where we came from, and it doesn’t really matter where we go. The work is the same, but there’s no limit to where it will take us.


The contrast between the Kingdom of God and the way the world generally operates is stark. This passage began with the notice that John the Baptist had been put in prison. This wasn’t good news for a person who was about to embark on a very similar mission, but Jesus was undeterred. Immediately after John the Baptist was put in prison for proclaiming a message that challenged the civil and religious leaders of the day, Jesus picked up where he left off and proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near. He called for people to repent and believe in the good news.


This doesn’t sound very threatening to us, but Roman rulers weren’t known for their tolerance of rival kingdoms. And the religious leaders of the day weren’t wanting to hear this call for people to repent. We’ve sort of turned that word, repent, in to a call for people to behave, but that’s not what Jesus was saying. The word does mean to turn around, and it can be a call for someone to turn away from their bad behavior, but the call is for us all to change our normal way of seeing and judging and calculating and to embrace the way God sees and judges and evaluates life.


When Jesus made this appeal for people to repent he wasn’t pleading for better behavior. When Jesus called for people to repent he was pressing people to change their allegiance. He wanted people to turn away from serving the little lords of the earth and to live in relationship with the Lord of all Life.


And this is a relevant appeal for us. This Kingdom of God didn’t just come near to those people in that small fishing village of Capernaum on that day that Jesus came by. The Kingdom of God is just as near to us, but it’s also just as far away. This repentance business is hard.


I have no regret about not going in to the car business. I really don’t believe I would have been very good at it, but I don’t believe it’s any easier for a professional minister to be a true follower of Jesus Christ than it is for a person who works in business or any other profession. I’m not saying there aren’t some shady professions and unhelpful operations. Sometimes repentance calls for us to leave behind evil behavior, but the challenge to repent is as real for a pastor as it is for anyone else.


The challenge for us all is to let go of our petty little agendas and to embrace the Kingdom of God. The call of Christ is compelling, but it’s also very threatening. And you see this play out in the lives of Simon and Andrew and James and John. They were quick to follow Jesus, they knew he had something they wanted, but in the days and weeks and months that followed they perpetually failed to grasp what he was saying and teaching.


Those first disciples weren’t perfect in their pursuit of God’s kingdom, but they knew what they wanted because they had experienced what it felt like to be in the presence of the King. And I believe this is true for us as well. None of us have perfect records when it comes to responding to the call of Christ, but sometimes we find the right words to say or the right places to go.


We all have our little worlds to manage and our little rulers to satisfy. Following Jesus doesn’t remove us from the petty demands that this world places upon us, but if we can repent and believe the good news that the Kingdom of God is near we will learn to see what is most essential and what is to be ignored.


I think we all have those moments when we clearly hear the call of Christ and we know what we need to do. This was certainly the case with Simon and Andrew and James and John, but the challenge of faith is fresh every day and the need for repentance never departs. Fortunately the presence of Christ remains as well and his claim upon our lives comes to us in new and fresh ways throughout our lives. Jesus continues to call us and to use us to spread the good news of the nearness of God’s Kingdom. We all are charged to carry out the most important work that anyone has ever done – to share the love of our living God. There’s no retirement from that work, and no end to the blessings that accompany it.


Thanks be to God.