The Vision Test

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 29 came from John 9:35-41 and focused on the day that Jesus healed a blind man and the conversations that ensued.

I am not sure how Google or FaceBook know what they know about me, but something in my internet history seems to indicate that I would be interested in seeing the recent film Unbroken. It’s the true, or at least true-ish, story of a young World War II Airman who is shot down, survives 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, is captured by the Japanese, and endures some horrific treatment in POW camps.

I have not seen the movie, but it would seem to me that it has something in common with other blockbusters of recent years such as Life of Pi or 127 Hours. In each of these cases, we follow the story of an amazing individual who is lost from society but who somehow holds on through grit, determination, or even cutting off one’s own arm in a desperate attempt to re-enter life, to re-engage the world on one’s own terms, or to succeed. We like those movies, and even if you are not familiar with those particular films, you’ve seen stories like that – we love to make them into movies.

You have not, however, come across the movie version of the day in the fall of 1975 when the AFS club from Cologne, Germany, was visiting the AFS club in Wilmington DE. During that visit, a beautiful young fräulein named Heike had the misfortune to be smitten with a dashing trombone player from Concord High School as we made the obligatory field trip to Washington DC. We may or may not have been whispering sweet nothings to each other and may or may not have been paying close attention to the announcement as to where and when to meet the bus for the trip home. Oddly enough, we did not get on that bus for the trip home until the police picked us up wandering outside the White House looking for a group that was waiting at the US Capital Building.

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

The Corn Maze at the Connors Farm near Danvers, MA

You probably also never saw a film about the family of four who, after having been lost for hours in a corn maze in Massachusetts, called 911 in a panic. “We came in during the day time and we got completely lost and we have no idea where we are,” the caller told the 911 operator.  “I’m really scared. It’s really dark and we’ve got a 3-week-old baby with us… We thought this could be fun.  Instead it’s a nightmare”. A rescue unit, complete with K-9 dogs was dispatched and located the couple 25 feet from the maze’s exit.

Unbroken, Life of Pi, or 127 Hours? Blockbusters. Field Trip Blunders or Cranky in the Corn Maze? Nobody wants to see those movies.

There is something in us that loves to hear about people who have thrived under difficult circumstances. We love and applaud self-made men and women who have pulled themselves together. All of our best stories about people getting lost have something to do with plucky heroes and stick-to-it-iveness. Even The Wizard of Oz, for crying out loud.

In our worship this Lent, we have been looking at stories of people who came back to Jesus. We’ve met John’s disciples, the demon-possessed man, the twelve apostles, Mary from Bethany, and the seventy-two who were sent out. All of them met Jesus at one time or another, and then left, and then came back. Each of them sought intentionally to re-engage him. They saw him, they knew that he was something special, and so they found him at a later time and presented themselves, their issues, their stories, their needs, or their hopes to him. Does that sound about right?

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

The Healing of a Blind Man, Duccio di Buoninsegna c. 1310

John 9 tells us a different story. The central figure is a man who apparently knows nothing about Jesus. The chapter opens with Jesus and the twelve walking along engaged in a theological discussion about the nature of God, healing, forgiveness, and more. Jesus, apparently wishing to make a point, pulls a blind man into their midst, heals him, and sends him on his way as they continue the discussion.

Unfortunately, this happened to take place on the Sabbath, which created a firestorm of controversy with the religious leaders. These men, who were already angry with and threatened by Jesus, decided that they needed to make an example of him for doing something so offensive as healing on the Sabbath.

And so, for the second time that day, this unsuspecting man who is, so far as we know, simply minding his own business, is drawn into a group of people having a theological argument. This time, the religious leaders demand that he denounce Jesus. He won’t do it.

The authorities drag his parents into it, and we learn that they are afraid because anyone who confesses that Jesus has power will be “cast out” of the worshipping community.

One more time, they go out and find this poor man and interrogate him, only to have him say, “Look, all I know is that I was blind, and now I can pass any vision test that’s offered. I don’t know this fellow. Go find him yourself.” That angers the religious people so much that they drive him out of the congregation.

All of that action happens prior to our reading for today, when, in keeping with our theme for the Lenten season, we see what happens as the man re-encounters Jesus.

The Man Born Blind (Laura James, used by permission. More at

So far as we know, not once in this man’s life has he ever gone looking for Jesus, but now, for the second time in as many days, Jesus finds him. And although Jesus has healed the man, he’s also made life a little tricky for him, to say the least. He is no longer eligible for membership in the covenant community – he has been driven away by the leadership.

And yet Jesus, once more, comes looking for him.

This should not be surprising to readers of John’s gospel, because in chapter six Jesus says “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37). The end result, for this man, at any rate, is that he worships the living God in the person of Jesus. He was not looking for Jesus, and yet Jesus sought him, changed him, healed him, accepted his worship, and embraced this man. A man who, let’s not forget, was not even looking for Jesus in the first place.

So what’s the point here? What are we to take away from this encounter, or, more precisely, this re-encounter, with Jesus?

Well, it strikes me that too often we are content to simply pass people by. If we notice at all, we notice in a way that does not permit any real interaction. “Ah”, we say, “Look at that one. She is so ________. He is too ___________.” And we keep on going. It’s not that we are blind to others or to their situations. We simply can’t – or won’t – see them. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to stop and engage on a meaningful level?

And sometimes we notice, all right, but then we respond less than admirably. How many religious communities can you think of who are known for or somehow proud of the height of the fences with which they surround themselves and by which they keep undesirables out? Think about the people you know who have been wounded by the church of Jesus Christ – people who are often broken or scarred in some way who experience greater pain at the hands of those of us who are called to serve. There are times when, in our zeal to be “pure” and “worthy” followers of the one who said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” we wind up, well, driving people away.

You know as well as I do that the church can be one of the cruelest places on earth. Christians, I say with some shame, can be downright mean.

I love my daughter for all kinds of reasons, but one of the things for which I am grateful is the way that she sought to include me in a group of friends that she made while she was in college. She found herself gathered with a number of young adults, many of whom had been kicked out of their churches. They were guilty of crimes like being tattooed, or using tobacco, or asking difficult questions… They may have been girls who got pregnant at the wrong time, or who enjoyed the “wrong” music… Ariel invited me to spend time with these young people who loved Jesus, but who had experienced rejection from a group of people that used his name. While I am deeply saddened by the pain that these young people endured, I am gratified that my daughter thought that my presence would be of some encouragement to her friends.

I’d like to share a special word with those who might be present who have experienced this kind of pain from the church – either this congregation or some other group of Christians. Beloved, look to Jesus Christ. Please do not confuse anyone – including me – who has somehow ever done anything that drove you away from the Lord with the person or presence of Jesus. To the extent that anyone – including me – has driven you away from God’s best, we have failed to be disciples, and therefore need to ask forgiveness from you and from God.

Today is Palm Sunday, and we gather today to remember the time that the folk in Jerusalem tried to throw Jesus a party. It did not go well, in part because it ended with Jesus weeping on a hillside as he considers the fact that even the ones who meant best were unable to see him for who he really was. In fact, he said, they were not even sure who they were themselves. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus said… “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”

And as we walk through the events of this Holy Week, we will remember the fact that he came to his own people, but they could not accept him. The story of much of this week is that he himself was driven away by those who claimed to have the “inside track” to God. If you’ve ever been wounded by the church, know that you have company – Jesus was hurt by the religious establishment a long time before you were.

Here’s a “spoiler alert” for next Sunday’s worship: he comes back. They drive him away, all right, in incredibly cruel and vicious ways, but they cannot keep him away. He is still looking for those who are willing to be shaped by him and used for his purposes.

This lent we have considered the fact that some people see Jesus and come running to meet him, again and again and again. Heal me, Lord. Take me. Use me.

But others don’t ever really get a glimpse of him, it would seem. Because they don’t see him, they don’t know, and therefore they don’t care.

And, saddest of all, there are many who have laid eyes on the savior, but who have somehow become convinced that they are simply not welcome to be with him. Somehow, these have been driven out.

Today, we are called to remember that we love and serve the Lord our God, who is eager to embrace those who seek him. We are called to point to the one who is willing to turn aside and engage even those who do not seek him and who, in fact, seems partial to those who have been told that they are not worthy of his attention at all.

In that light, friends, let us not give up on Jesus, or each other, or ourselves. May we have the vision to see and to know that Jesus is not particularly overwhelmed with those who heroically make their own way in the world day after day after day, and seems instead to be delighted to simply find people who realize that they are not where they should be.

I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and while I may never have been stuck in a corn maze, I’m here to tell you that my most common prayer is “help!” And Jesus has always seen me. I have been lost. Many times. And I have been found. Not once, but always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Speak of the Devil…

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 22 came fromLuke 10:17-24 and focused on the day that the seventy (or seventy-two) disciples came back and told Jesus about their amazing trip.

I love Jesus.

I believe that he was the kindest, most wonderful and amazing human being that ever walked the planet. He was a great moral teacher and a phenomenal leader. He was fantastic.

But if I insist on taking everything that Jesus said literally; if I will only accept each word of Scripture at face value, then I have to say that Jesus was flat-out wrong in what he said to the people who came back to give him a report about their mission trip.

Christ Sends out the Seventy Two (artist, date unknown)

Christ Sends out the Seventy Two (artist, date unknown)

Here’s the scene: Some weeks earlier, Jesus took a large group of his followers and sent them into the towns and villages to preach the good news. He gave them instructions similar to those we considered when he sent out the twelve a couple of weeks ago. What’s different, of course, is the number. In Genesis 10, there is a listing of people groups that came to be known as the “table of the nations” from which all humanity descended. In the Hebrew translations of Genesis, there are 70 groups listed; in the Greek, there are 72. In Genesis, this constitutes the “whole world”.

Some of your bibles will indicate that there were 70 that Jesus sent out, while others put the number at 72. The point is not the number – the point is that in this passage, Luke is clearly wanting his readers to think about Jesus as sending his followers not only to the “chosen people”, but to the whole world. Jesus sends the news of God’s kingdom to everyone – and he charges his followers to go out and shake up the world.

And in our reading from today, they return to the Lord and they are on fire! In fact, Luke tells us that they returned “with joy”, or “rejoicing.” The word that’s used here is chairo, and it is the usual word for “rejoice” in the New Testament, showing up nearly seventy times. It means “be happy” or “cheerful”.

Why the broad smiles? Well, “the demons submit to us!” That’s good news! Jesus says, referring to a passage in Isaiah, “I know! In fact, I was watching Satan fall! It was awesome. While you were out there on that trip, doing what I told you to do, you could do anything – you stepped on snakes and scorpions, you overcame the Devil. Nothing can hurt you.” That’s all there in the reading, right?

You see, that’s where I have a little difficulty. Because it seems as though Jesus is saying here, essentially, “Listen up, folks – if you walk where I tell you to walk, and do what I tell you to do, then no harm will come to you.”

That’s simply not true.

Gwen and John have been mission co-workers in Ethiopia since 1974. And on October 1, 2014, after having served the Lord in that place for more than four decades, they were savagely attacked and left to die on the road. Somehow, after each of them was shot in the face, they managed to drive to a hospital and begin a series of grueling, painful treatments to somehow restore form and function that was lost.

And as bad as that was, you may remember last month, when 21 Christians were beheaded by ISIS in Libya.

On a more personal note, I remember the day that the doctor came and told me that it was my job to remove the dead baby from her mother’s arms so that he could provide medical care to the mother in spite of the baby’s death.

Nothing will hurt you? Come on, Jesus, that’s not even close to being accurate. If I read scripture literally, then in Luke 10 Jesus is either sorely mistaken or he is a malicious liar.

Unless…unless this is not what he was talking about at all. With all of my heart, I believe that there is more to this story than Jesus assuring us that we will all be rich, fat, happy, and have no problems.

This is why I think that: something happens in Luke 10 that I did not see the first 40 or 50 times I read this passage. It’s right there in verse 21 – just after Jesus seems to indicate that no problems will ever come the disciples’ way. We are told here that Jesus “rejoiced”.

Beloved, this is the only time in all of Scripture that this phrase is used. Jesus rejoiced. The root word here is different than the one used earlier in the same chapter. Here, Luke uses the word agalliao, which means “to “exult”, or “be exceedingly glad”, or even “jump for joy”. It speaks of a religious exuberance. The only other time that Luke uses this word is when he quotes Mary’s song in chapter 1: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

Listen: when the 70 or 72 come back to Jesus, they rejoice – chairo – at the success they’ve just experienced. The mission trip has really cheered them up. But right away, Jesus says, “Listen, don’t be happy because you were able to witness a few miracles. Be cheerful because your names are known in heaven and you, in fact, are known by God. That’s a great reason to be happy!” Then Jesus goes directly to the stronger and more emphatic agalliao.

Christ Sends Out the Seventy Disciples Two-By-Two James Tissot, 1836-1902

Christ Sends Out the Seventy Disciples Two-By-Two
James Tissot, 1836-1902

And what provokes this outburst in Jesus? The fact that those who follow him “get it”. The 72 should not be happy because they saw an exorcism. They ought to be glad because they were in a position to see the fundamental re-orientation of the entire universe. Jesus says as much to them in a private moment when he whispers, “You know, prophets and kings longed to see and hear what you’ve all seen and heard… but they did not.”

Jesus cannot have been talking about miracles and exorcisms and the like. The Old Testament is full of stories about people who were healed and who knew and saw the power of God’s spirit. You know that Moses and Jeremiah and Isaiah and David and Elijah and Elisha and hundreds more saw plenty of places where God’s spirit overwhelmed the spirit of the world, and where the miraculous occurred. The one thing that none of those people ever saw was the Promise of God’s abiding presence with God’s people being fulfilled.

In Luke 1, Jesus’ mother sings about the fact that the world will be turned upside down because God the Father wants to do it – and here, in the person and work of Jesus, that is happening. And note, please, that it is happening on the road to Jerusalem where the one who said, “Nothing will hurt you” will himself be killed on a Roman cross.

As I said, if Jesus’ words to his followers were a sort of a “Hey, keep your chin up, because you’re not going to have any more problems” kind of comment, well then, Jesus is full of it.

But if his message to the 72 is an indication that the ultimate salvation of the world is coming; that God is restoring what has been lost, and is in fact moving to see that the “hungry are fed, while the rich are sent away empty”, well, that’s another story.

Because that, my friends, is what the 72 saw that the kings and prophets died hoping to glimpse. That’s a cause for rejoicing.

So far as we know, the only time in his entire life that Jesus leapt for joy was on the day that his closest friends were given an insight into the ways that God is reclaiming the creation and bringing all of history into line with God’s eternal intentions. Jesus’ supreme joy was rooted, not in the fact that a few of his friends had a great weekend, but rather in the knowledge that they understood the bigger, broader, eternal thing that God was beginning in him.

Christ the Healer Icon

Christ the Healer Icon

What do we take away from this reading as we continue our discussions about people who come back to Jesus? How can we respond as we live in this world that is too often filled with demons of one kind or another, and where too often missionaries get shot, or believers are martyred, and babies die?

Well, I think that one significant step would be to simply speak of the Devil. That is to say, I believe that the followers of Jesus Christ ought to be attentive to the places in our world that seem to be infested with demons.

Some of these places are cultural, or historical, or political realities. Every day, we have the opportunity to witness the demon of racism, wherein persons of one group, or tribe, or ethnic identity insist that members of another group are not worthy of respect, justice, love, or trust. We see that played out in large arenas, such as in the conflict between certain persons of color and the police in our own country, or in places like South Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We hear it when someone shouts that all of “them” are “like that”.

We see these places daily in our media as those in power have found fear-mongering to be a powerful tool to manipulate the behavior of the masses and encourage us to buy more locks or guns or bomb more enemies or dig deeper shelters in order to protect what is ours… We feel it when we wade into a culture that says that life – or, to be precise, that some life­ – is not valuable and can be easily disposed of. These are demons that must be named and opposed.

And while much of the time we look at the evil in broad and public places, there are many demon-infested places that are intensely personal. Think about the young person you know who is racked with intense loneliness and that demon opens the door to its friends, promiscuity and substance abuse – and together, they will seek to destroy that life.

Or what about the man who wakes up every day to find his head, heart, and spirit are not alone, but have already been assailed by the demon of depression, and he is locked in a despondency that things can never get better and he might as well just give up…

Or the family that is falling into a cycle of generational violence, where pain and beatings and abuse are given and received and there just seems to be no way out except to hit harder or take more violence into oneself.

None of these things – or a thousand other examples I could cite – are God’s intention for this world. None are reflective of the way of life that Jesus gives to his people.

I am here to suggest that when we see these demons, or others like them, in ourselves, our friends, our community, or our world, that we simply name them. We identify them to ourselves, to one whom we trust, and to God as enemies of what God intends.

As we name the enemies of God’s intentions, we also are called to look for places where those intentions are expressed with truth and power, and we are invited to point to and seek to bring about the healing and the wholeness that can be found, as the 72 discovered, in the person of Jesus.

I have to tell you, if I said, “You know, this won’t hurt a bit!”, I’d be lying. If you think that confronting the evil of institutionalized racism is painless, then let me buy you a ticket to go see Selma. If you think that dealing with loneliness or abuse is easy, then let me introduce you to a few friends who are holding on by the skin of their teeth.

But the honest to goodness truth is that you were not made to serve these demons. You were not made to live within their clutches. And neither was your neighbor.

In ourselves, we will not defeat fear or violence or depression. But Jesus calls us to rejoice in the fact that we are not in ourselves alone any more, any more than the 70 (or 72) who returned to Jesus were by themselves when he sent them out into the world. We stand and face these evils with a promise from the One who came, who lived among us, was crucified, buried and who rose again… a promise that in him we saw a glimpse of the new reality that has already dawned. Let us not flag in our efforts to name that hope, to identify that reality, and to live into that promise for ourselves and those with whom we share this journey.

Because if we do that – if we name these demons and confront them and trust in Christ to overcome them in a new reality – then I think that Jesus, beautiful, kind, wonderful Jesus, will leap for joy. And so will you. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Extravagant Gratitude

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 15 came from John 12:1-8 and focused on the day that Jesus re-visited the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus after he had raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Think for a moment about a person you would say is a friend. A close friend. Think about the things you’ve shared, the things that person has meant to you over the weeks, months, and years. Do you have a picture in your mind of someone you’d call a good friend?

Think about how things are always just so easy with this person – there’s never, ever been a time when things were tense between you, or one of you made a mistake; things have always been simply perfect…

Yes, that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? A friendship where there’s never any misunderstanding, never any cause to regret something you might have said or done…

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer (1655)

Jesus and Mary were close friends. We know that because John chapter 11 tells us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. We see it when later in that same chapter, Jesus becomes aware of Lazarus’ death, but it’s not until he comes face to face with Mary that he breaks down and weeps himself. You know how that is, don’t you? You have a sense of being able to hold it together in a crisis, and then you see a beloved face, and you dissolve in a puddle of emotion.

Jesus loved Mary, and Mary loved Jesus.

But that’s not to say that things were always smooth. In fact, the last conversation that we overhear between these two sounds bitter and almost accusatory: after Lazarus dies, Mary hides from Jesus, and then finally faces him, exclaiming, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died…” She is sad, she is angry, and she says the first thing that comes to mind.

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Raising of Lazarus After Rembrandt (detail), by Vincent Van Gogh (1890)

Of course, we are not always at our best when we say the first thing that comes to mind, are we? You know how it is to be a part of a conversation that did not end gracefully: you said something to your boss or a coworker; a teacher heard you mouth off; you spoke in anger to one whom you love. Oh, you got out of the room, all right, but now you’ve got to face that one again, and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.

That was Mary’s situation. In John 11, her brother dies, and she does everything but blame it on Jesus. Then he raises her brother from the dead and leaves town. Not long afterward, he comes through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, and Mary’s going to come face to face with her friend.

This Lent, we’re talking about people who turn back to Jesus – those who encountered him, and then left for some reason, and then have come back into the relationship.

Sometimes, when people meet the Lord, we expect to see some sort of fundamental re-orientation of their lives. Think about Zacchaeus, for instance, or the Roman Centurion or Philip. Each of these men, and dozens more, could walk out of that encounter and say, “You know, I really missed the boat. I mean, I was so wrong. I was so off base. I will change my ways and get my life together.”

That’s not the case for Mary, though. There’s no evidence that Mary was a bad person, or had nasty habits, or was in any way reprobate. She’d had a bad day – her brother died! – and she took it out on Jesus…and now she has to face him.

The reading we had from John shows us how each member of this family re-turns to Jesus following the events of chapter 11. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary each have their own style of reconnecting.

Martha, the practical one, seeks to express her care for Jesus. “Relax, Lord. Being the Rabbi is tough work. Let me worry about dinner. You know, Jesus, you work too hard. Rest.” Martha is smoothing things over by making sure that all the details are well-attended.

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, by Tintoretto (c. 1575)

Lazarus, the man who was, presumably, supremely glad to see Jesus a week or so ago, is content to simply sit at table with Jesus and soak it all in. He is enjoying the chance for fellowship, teaching, and conversation.

Both Martha’s and Lazarus’ approaches are valid expressions of a heart-felt joy in relationship, but I’d like to focus in on Mary’s response to the renewed presence of Jesus in her home.

She is, above all else, profoundly grateful. This is a woman who is clearly overwhelmed with feelings of thankfulness for all that Jesus has done in raising her brother from the dead and thereby saving Martha and her from a life of poverty and difficulty. In looking for a way to express this gratitude, she goes to his feet and lets down her hair and focuses totally on Jesus – for Mary, there is simply no one else in the room.

Mary not only has feelings of thankfulness – she expresses those feelings with concrete actions. And hers is an act that has significant implications for her – we read that Judas was chafed because the ointment that she spread on Jesus’ feet was worth more than 300 denarii. A single denarius was the usual wage for one day, and so she is, in essence, committing an entire year’s salary to this celebration of gratitude. There is no indication that this is somehow “extra” ointment that she had laying around, or left-over from some other event. She took her best and, in an act of devotion, she poured it out on Jesus.

She was doing this, she thought, as a way to re-engage the Lord and to show him how glad she was that he was still willing to come into her home and life. She was not aware, however, that her act had an even greater implication until Jesus pointed out that this was preparing him for his own death.

And note with me, please, that when Mary does act on her feelings of thanksgiving, she acts in a way that, while incomprehensible to others, is totally authentic to her own life. Mary is not seeking to show up anyone, she’s not trying to get Jesus to like her better – she has no ulterior motives here – just spontaneous, extravagant gratitude.

Stained glass window, Meyer's Studios, Munich 1899

Stained glass window, Meyer’s Studios, Munich 1899

A third thing that I notice about Mary’s action is that her behavior – her choices, her outpouring of gratitude make the whole house a better place to be. The ointment that she uses is called “nard”, and it is an essential oil made from the roots of a plant called spikenard. This oil is intensely aromatic and fragrant, and was used in making perfume, incense, or medicine. While Mary is totally focused on making her own act of gratitude and devotion to Jesus, John points out that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.” Mary’s act of devotion and thanksgiving was a blessing to the people who were around her.

As we sit back and consider this encounter of one woman’s “re-turn” to Jesus, what are the implications for our lives?

I wonder…when is the last time you slowed down enough just to be grateful to God for who and where you are right now? I know, I know, you are not totally satisfied with your life. There are still some changes you need to make and some goals on your horizon. But seriously, some of you need to be asking yourselves, “How am I still alive right now? Why in the world am I here? How did I pass that class? Who am I that I get to do this, that, or the other thing?

I get it – your life isn’t perfect. But most of us slept last night in some degree of comfort. Most of us have access to food, and we are gathered in the warmth of this fellowship. Aren’t these good things? Do they matter to you? Can you be grateful for something in your life right now?

And if you can (as I hope you are), then how will you respond to that sense of gratitude in your life? How will you act upon the feelings you’ve got? Maybe that’s why you’re here. I get that – some of us came to church this morning just to say “thanks”. And some of us see this act of Mary bringing the nard to Jesus and say, “Yes, of course – I am giving of what I have as a means to demonstrate my joy in Jesus.”

To be honest, that is the only reason for giving that is really comprehensible to me. I know that God can’t love me any more. I know that there’s no way in blue blazes that I am going to be able to do enough to solve one of the world’s problems with what I give…but I am so deeply appreciative of what the Lord has done for me that I don’t really feel as though I have a choice here – I can only respond in generosity as I consider the extravagant blessings in my own life.

So maybe you have a posture of gratitude, and maybe you want to join me in expressing that gratitude in an act of giving. Does our response make the world a better place? Just as the whole house was filled with the aroma of Mary’s nard, are my neighbors better off because I’m grateful to God? Is the way that I treat them or the others around me reflective of the deep sense of gratitude that I owe to our creator? Does your gratitude to Christ spill over so that others are aware or encouraged or enriched?

Another way of asking that same question, I suppose, is this: does the way in which I experience and express my gratitude lead others to become more aware of God’s care in and for their lives, which will lead them, in turn, to a place where they can embrace the savior with gratitude and respond in a way that is authentic to them?

Listen, my friends: Jesus is here, now. He has come to this place, even after I have not always treated him in the way that he deserves to be treated. Today, you and I have the opportunity for a fresh engagement with the Lord of life, a new opportunity for hope and healing.

In view of that, can we resolve to move forward in a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude? And can we decide that our thanksgiving will have practical implications for us and the rest of the world? Can our lives today be anchored in a thanksgiving that is not limited to mere sentiment, but one that blossoms into action that grows into love expressed for the world?

This is a new day, a new season, and new opportunities. Thanks be to God for the chance to respond with joy and gratitude. Amen.

You Do It

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 8 came from Mark 6 and focused on the story of Jesus’ sending out the twelve and then the feeding of the 5000. 

I’d like to ask you to make a mental list. Don’t shout out the answers, but just think for a moment: what are some amazing things that Jesus could do?

I bet that even in a few seconds, you got a bunch, didn’t you? Water into wine, healing the sick, walking on water, walk through locked doors… Pretty amazing stuff.

Now, another list. Think for a moment about stuff that Jesus cannot do.

Hmmm. That list is, I would suspect, a little shorter. A little harder to come by. Especially if I were to ‘refine the search’ by asking you to list things that Jesus can’t do that are mentioned in the Bible.

Jesus is Driven from Nazareth (unknown artist)

Jesus is Driven from Nazareth (unknown artist)

In the beginning of Mark 6, however, we encounter something that Jesus can’t do: in that chapter, we see where Jesus has come back to Nazareth, his hometown. He shows up in the synagogue and does what he usually does, only the response is so icy that the Lord of life freezes up. Mark 6:5 tells us that “he could do no mighty work there…” And, in another twist, we learn in verse 6 that Jesus literally can’t believe the fact that his childhood neighbors won’t accept him for who he is. Jesus can’t do those things.

That’s important background for the reading that we’ve had today – the sending out of the twelve apostles and the things that came afterward. Let’s consider this passage for a few moments.

First, Jesus sends out his disciples and specifically instructs them to go empty-handed. I don’t know about your family, but I am here to tell you that this would get Jesus scolded in my family. I mean, my mother-in-law would lay into Jesus right about now: “Are you serious, Jesus? Do you mean to send those poor young men out there with nothing? No snacks? No juiceboxes? What are you thinking, Lord?”

But that’s what he does. He tells them to leave behind their money, their luggage, their extra bread – everything. The only thing that they’ve got is a walking stick and outlandish trust.

And you heard what happened: they did it. They preached that all should repent. They cast out many demons. They cured many who were sick.

Do you see the contrast there? Jesus, playing a home game, with all the resources at his disposal, basically strikes out. And the disciples, playing an away game with nothing in their hands, hit a home run. They have a better day than does Jesus. They do more than Jesus does.

And while the twelve are out there doing amazing things, it’s not getting any better for Jesus. He learns about John the Baptist’s death. John, his cousin. John, the forerunner of the Messiah.

Now Jesus had always known how the world treats truth-tellers. It had to be increasingly clear what lay ahead for him, personally. I believe that it’s fair to say that as Jesus heard about John’s fate, he had a bit of insight into his own future.

The Disciples Return to Jesus (Unknown artist)

He Sent them out Two by Two James Tissot,, 1886-1896

And while he’s thinking about that, the disciples return. That’s our theme, right? People who come back to Jesus after having been with him previously. And the disciples can’t wait to get back to the Lord. They are flushed with success and eager to tell him everything. And Jesus says, “That’s a great idea. You folks have had a tough week – let’s go spend a little ‘us’ time and you can let me know what happened.” The idea of a small group retreat sounds good to everyone…until they realize that, well, everyone is interested in showing up. I mean to tell you, the masses show up!

When I first read this, I thought that maybe Jesus was pulling the old ‘bait and switch’ on his friends, suckering them to go out into the wilderness and then springing a big old crowd from the Jesus fan base on them. However, I noticed one little word that changed my perception. The word is “them”, and it appears three times in verse 33: “Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them”.

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

You see what I mean, right? I always thought that the crowds were eager to see what Jesus was up to. Turns out that it’s the twelve that the crowds wanted to see. The “lonely place” isn’t so lonely because the disciples have done such an amazing job of preaching, teaching, and healing that the locals just can’t get enough – and so they hound them out to the wilderness. The disciples are sought out because they are effective in this ministry.

The crowds prove too much for the disciples, though, and they come back to Jesus and say, “Come on, Lord, get rid of these guys. We’re bushed. Take care of them, Jesus.”

And Jesus looks at the twelve and says, “You know what? You guys are on a roll. You take care of this one.”

They look at Jesus and do that, “You’ve gotta be kidding me, Lord” thing that they’d done so often. That’s impossible, Jesus. That’s just crazy talk.

And yet he instructs them to see what they do have and, lo and behold, after taking inventory, they discover that they’ve got enough to feed 5000 men and their families.

When you read the Gospel of Mark, you discover an interesting feature of his writing style. Some scholars actually call it “the Marcan Sandwich”. Mark will start a story, and then interrupt it with another drama, and then come back and finish the first one. Almost always when this happens, we see that the meaning of the one story is heightened or deepened by the insertion of the other. In Mark 6, the “middle” of the sandwich is the death of John the Baptist and Jesus’ glimpse of his own future. That would suggest to me that a significant part of the other story has something to do with Jesus’ vision of what is to come.

I have long believed that on the day that the 5000 were fed, there were only about a dozen people there who knew what kind of miracle was going on. I’m convinced that the people who received the miraculous lunchables that day had no clue as to the source of their food. After all, we read that “they all ate and were satisfied.” That is to say, at the end of the meal, they got up, burped politely, and headed for home. There were no questions. There was no clamor for more. In fact, they even left the extra bread laying around.

Don’t you think that if for a moment you suspected that this bread was miraculous you’d have taken a biscuit home for your brother, or to put up for bid on e-bay? If you thought that there was an endless supply of sustenance at hand, a miraculous source of food, would you just zip up your windbreaker and go wait for the bus? But that’s what everyone did – they left unremarkably. The disciples and Jesus knew what was going on, but everyone else thought that the meal was simply provided. Thanks very much. Gotta run.

orthodoxy-icon-feeding-5000But Jesus knew that he was using the disciples to accomplish this miraculous feeding of the 5000. Check this out: in sending out the twelve, I believe that he was actually preparing them for the feeding of the 5000 and, more importantly, for the ministries that they would undertake after his death – ministries that would be, in terms of the number of people directly affected, far bigger and with a much deeper impact than the miracles he’d done. He sent them out on the road with nothing but a walking stick and a pair of Nikes so that they could experience the fruit of radical trust in him. He wanted them, in those days on the road, to see themselves as those who were capable of being used by God for significant purpose.

That time in the villages, away from him, allowed them to grow in their faith as well as in their ability to be effective in ministry. But when they return to Christ, we see that they’ve lost some of what they had learned.

Listen: when they started preaching in the towns and villages, what did they have? Nothing – just the walking stick and a pair of shoes. But what did they do? Amazing things!

And when they got to the “lonely place”, what do they have? Presumably, they have the same sticks and shoes, but they also have five loaves and two fish…and, of course, Jesus himself. They have much more here than they had a week ago – but they claim to be powerless.

Jesus chooses to work through them anyway.

Let me ask you: do you think that it’s only the twelve whom Jesus came to prepare and equip?

Do you think that Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, the other James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot – yes, even Judas – are the only ones into whose eyes the Lord looks and says, “I dare you – trust me on this one. Let’s see what can happen here…”?

Do you think that Jesus has stopped looking at the people who claim to be his followers and saying, “Hoo, boy, that’s a huge need right there…you know, y’all might want to do something about that situation…”?

Me neither. I know for a fact that Jesus still sends out people empty-handed to tackle impossible jobs and calls those who claim to be his followers to act in trust and faith.

These passages are in the Gospel of Mark to tell us what happened on that day to those guys – and to prepare us for the knowledge that the Christ who knows us is the Christ who calls us is the Christ who equips us is the Christ who is using this part of your story to prepare you for what is coming in the days ahead!

How does this work? I don’t know, to be honest. But the truth is that you are not ‘in between’, you are not standing idle, you are not stuck.

The God who created you is at work in you and longs to be at work through you.

This Lent, can we follow the example of the disciples and look around at the places in which we find ourselves. Where do we see need? Where do we see an emptiness?

Then, just as he asked them to take an inventory, can we look within ourselves and ask what resources we have at hand? Are we holding onto a few loaves, a couple of fish, or some other things that we don’t think are worth too much, but if placed in the hands of Jesus might just be miraculous? I am fairly certain that we are – that we, like the twelve, are too often content to sell ourselves short so that we don’t have to bother with that ministry business.

But Jesus keeps looking at us thinking that maybe, just maybe, we’re capable if we’ll just give it a try and trust him too.

Let me ask you, dear friends, to look at the little you’ve got, and go to Jesus, and say, “All right, Lord. Here’s this huge need. And here’s this little loaf. How in the heck do you think we can take this to do that? How do we proclaim your kingdom, your love, your mercy, your hope – here and now, with who we are and what we have?”

That’s our calling. Because I’m pretty sure that he’s going to look at us, as he did Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, the other James, Thaddaeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot, and say, “You do it.”

And you can. And you will. Because he is shaping you right now for the next thing in your life – whatever that is. Right now – even now, he is preparing you to do amazing things. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Among the Tombs

During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time.  My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction.  Our reading for March 1 came from Mark 5:1-20, the story of the Gerasene demoniac.

The first time I participated in a national gathering of church leaders was while I was in college. I had been selected as a “Youth Advisory Delegate” to the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, and I went as an optimistic, hopeful, yet determined young man. I had a deep fire in my belly to help the larger church embrace truth as I could see it. My beard was quite long in those days, and in my mind, it made me appear more prophetic and serious. I learned that first impressions can be different, however, while standing in the back of an elevator while two of the older commissioners got on. I recognized them as being men who served on the same subcommittee as did I, but before I could say anything, one of them turned to the other and said, “Wow, I’m glad that meeting is over. What a waste of time,” to which his friend replied, “You’re not kidding. I don’t know who that kid with the beard thinks he is, but I thought he’d never shut up.” Ah, first impressions…

This week, we continue our Lenten journey in which we are taking a look at people who had not only first, but second impressions of Jesus – stories from the Gospels that describe people who met that young man and were curious, angry, or desperate enough to come back to him and re-engage him in a new way.

The Sea of Galilee as seen from the cliffs along "the other side".

The Sea of Galilee as seen from the cliffs along “the other side”.

The story for today does not have an auspicious beginning. We read at the end of Mark 4 that Jesus and his followers had left the safety and familiarity of Galilee and taken a boat ride. Mark 4:35 reads, “…when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side’”. You may remember that we have spoken before about the fact that when the Bible calls this part of the region “the other side” it means at least two things. On the one hand, there is the literal meaning of simply crossing the lake. They did that. But more than that, “the other side” was meant to convey the impression that Jesus had asked his followers to leave their comfort zones and the safety of the familiar to set foot in a place where “those” people lived – those who were “other”. Those who were different. Those who are not “us”.

All right, today we read that they got to the other side. Now, follow me on this. When did they leave home? According to Mark 4, “When it was evening”. And so, if it was evening when they left, and the Sea of Galilee is about five miles across at this point, then what was it when they got to the other side? Dark. And where do they make landfall? In the graveyard.

OldTombWow, if the disciples didn’t want to go to the other side in the first place, then heading to the cemetery at night must have been the icing on the cake, eh? Three times in the first five verses, Mark wants us to remember that this action takes place among the tombs. Why?

I think that, at least in part, it was because when the disciples remembered this time, they remembered being scared out of their wits. Tombs, in addition to being thought of as haunted by ghosts and demons, were also – believe it or not – filled with dead bodies, and thus sources of uncleanness and the risk of infection. In addition to that, these caves were the homes of wild animals. And to top it all off, this particular area was home to a man who had fallen so deeply into his own personal hell that no one else even tried to bother with him any more. He was a total loser. A goner. A waste of a life – but as long as he stayed out in the graveyard, it was all right.

DemonsWhat do we learn about Jesus in this passage? Well, from the start, Mark has let us know that Jesus is intrusive – that the Kingdom he proclaims will challenge the status quo and confront the powers that be. That truth practically screams at us from these pages. When Jesus shows up in among the tombs, who wants him to be there? As we’ve already noted, the disciples would just as soon not be around. What about the others – are they eager to meet Jesus? Not the man – he yells at Jesus to stay away. Not the demons – they say, “Leave me alone, Jesus!” Not the townspeople – they can’t get rid of him quickly enough, even after the tremendous display of power. Nobody wants Jesus around.

And if that’s not intrusive enough, did you notice that Jesus performs his healing on an unwilling victim? What’s up with that, Jesus? I mean, here I am – a good, faithful kind of guy who keeps his yard clean, votes responsibly, and can be trusted with small children and to collect the church offering, jumping up and down, saying “Jesus, come over here and heal my friend, or my sister, or my son…” and it seems as if he can’t be bothered…but check him out as he crosses the Sea of Galilee and goes into a region where he’s clearly not wanted and heals a man who doesn’t ask for it. Why does Mark tell us this? I think it’s because he wants us to know that we ought to never, ever think for a second that we can either control Jesus or pretend to fully understand him. Who Jesus is, and what Jesus does, says Mark, is all about the Kingdom of God. And there are parts of that, it would seem, that we just cannot, or do not, “get” at this point.

For centuries, people have looked at this incident in the life of Jesus and thought that it was troubling because it revealed him to be a cruel and insensitive man. After all, the result of this little foray is that two thousand pigs die and several people, none of whom had anything against Jesus, are out of work. Can you imagine what the Galilean chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was saying about this? Or the local swine-herders association? Why is Jesus so destructive? No wonder people there begged Jesus to leave.

I don’t know, but I wonder if maybe we’re asking that question backwards. After all, here is a human being who has been wandering the caves, living among the tombs, lost to the world, for who knows how long – and people just accept it. “Yeah, that happens”, we say. “It’s terrible when we think about the kinds of things that people can get themselves into…”

But put a little bite into the bacon profits, and watch out! Is there something wrong when we accept the isolation and torment of a human being and shrug and say, “Well, what can you do?”, but get ourselves worked into a lather over the stock market, or what color that dress on Facebook is? I’m just saying…

So, Jesus is intrusive. And Jesus values human life even more than we do. Maybe that’s at least a part of what this passage says about Jesus. What does it say about us?

Well, for starters, let me suggest that this passage reminds us that we do love our demons. The man whom Jesus met in the graveyard at night can see Jesus coming, he is strangely drawn to the Lord – but then he says, “Stay the heck away from me!” He is face to face with the one who could heal him – but he tries to pull back. Why? Because he can’t see himself anywhere else.

I wish I could say that it’s only him, but it’s me, too. And maybe you, for all I know. If I live among the tombs long enough, I get to know and maybe even love my secret pride; I nurse my anger; I feed my addiction; I cultivate my lust. I know it’s not good for me. I know that Jesus would take it away from me. And so I’d rather not talk with Jesus about that thing…because in some odd and perverted way, I have come to love it. Can you imagine that? Does that make any sense?

Not only does this passage remind me that I love me some demons, it calls me on the fact that I don’t really want to be bothered. I think most of us would just as soon not worry about anyone else.

Don’t you think that the disciples ever snapped? “Hey, for crying out loud, Jesus, give it a rest. Can’t we have a day off? Feeding 5000 here, healing a withered hand there, now traipsing off to the graveyard and visiting the gentiles and getting booed out of town? Why are we bothering with this, Jesus? Really! Who needs it?”

It’s really, really hard to care about the man wandering in the graveyard. He’s unclean. He’s smelly. He treats me like garbage. He’s scary. But for some reason, Jesus thinks he’s worth more than two thousand pigs. Jesus heals him. And that makes a difference.

This may be among my all-time favorite photos of my daughter, taken amongst the ruins of Hippos/Susita in 2010.

This may be among my all-time favorite photos of my daughter, taken amongst the ruins of Hippos/Susita in 2010.

We know that it makes a difference because Mark tells us that it does. Mark is very precise about this healing – he says that it occurred in somewhere called “the Decapolis”. If you remember anything about your Greek, you’ll recognize that “deca” means “ten” and “polis” means “city”. Clustered around the east side of the Jordan river was a curious group of ten cities: Scythopolis, Pella, Dion, Gerasa, Philadelphia, Gadara, Rahana, Kanatha, Hippos, and Damascus all traced their founding back to the time of Alexander the Great. They were located in Syria, but they were neither Palestinian nor Arab – they were fundamentally Greek cities. They had temples to the Greek gods; there were Greek marketplaces, Greek amphitheaters, and Greek lifestyles. My daughter Ariel and I visited the ruins of Hippos in 2010.

And now, because of the intrusive savior who bursts into the graveyard at night and heals a man who is not particularly interested in being healed, and in the process, who irritates the businessmen of the entire region, there is one person who can speak to the healing power of Jesus Christ.

There are ten towns in the Decapolis, each of which is filled with thousands of people. And out of all those people, there is one person who knows from personal experience what Jesus can do for a man. The first conversation between Jesus and this man is a harsh and difficult one, but since we’re talking about returning to Jesus, let’s look at the second conversation, there in verses 18-20. More than anything, the man who had been the object of Jesus’ unsolicited healing wants to get out of the Decapolis and follow Jesus. The man begged Jesus for the chance to accompany him and be a disciple, and Jesus – confusing, irritating, unpredictable Jesus – says “No. Go home.”

After being “clothed and in his right mind” for less than twelve hours, the man has a hunger to be with Jesus. I’m sure he doesn’t understand it very well. It’s just gnawing at him. There’s a sense that something amazing has happened, and that something bigger could happen. The man has been wandering the hillsides crazed for who knows how long, and now he gets it. Now he sees. Now he is healed. He knows what he is hungry for and he knows where it is. It’s in Jesus.

And Jesus looks him in the eye, and Jesus loves him, and Jesus says, “Now, go back to the Decapolis, and tell your friends.” And the man does. He does!

Check this out: a few chapters later, Mark talks about the next time that Jesus and the boys visit this region near the Decapolis. In between these trips, we hear about the ways that Jesus was treated in his hometown of Nazareth. The people among whom he grew up, the men and women and boys and girls who ought to have been most aware of the Holy that was in their midst, rejected him. And so Jesus and the disciples head out on a preaching tour and find themselves “on the other side” again.

Jesus Feeds the Multitudes (artist unknown)

Jesus Feeds the Multitudes (artist unknown)

Only this time, when they get to that neighborhood, it’s not such a lonely place. This time, there are more than 4,000 people who are there eager to hear his teaching and experience his touch.

When he left that town, how many people knew who Jesus was, what he could do, and who he was calling them to be? One man – ONE MAN – was told, “go and tell your friends what the Lord has done for you” – and he did. He did.

Lent is a time to wait or to reflect. To anticipate. To begin to wonder what might happen if this intrusive and powerful savior was to show up in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love. It’s a time for us to look around us at the demons that we love and to cry out to the Lord who asks us to love him more.

The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is an incredible Lenten reading. What would happen if each of us were to be willing to row all night with Jesus towards a place where we’d rather not go? What would happen if each of us were to allow Jesus to hear us speak the names of the demons we have grown to love…and if we were to allow Jesus to remove them from us? What would happen if each of us were willing to pray for the Christ to show up in the lives of those whom we love who are unwilling to call out on their own behalf? What would happen if one, or two, or five or six of us would be willing to obey Christ and go out and tell our friends?

What would happen? Well, we’d find ourselves in Easter, my friends. It would be a season where we explored and dwelt in the kind of life for which God intends us.

What would happen?