Can You See Anything?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On July 1 we looked at one of the strangest miracles of Jesus – that time when he apparently had to “try again” to heal a man’s sightlessness.  Our gospel lesson was from  Mark 8:11-21, and we also heard from Hebrews 5:11-14.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

In 2012, an Australian college student woke up in the hospital following a horrific accident.  The first person he saw was a nurse of Asian descent, and so he said to her in Mandarin Chinese, “I’m really sore – what happened?”  He then asked for a piece of paper, and wrote, also in Mandarin, “I love my mom.  I love my dad.  I will get better.”  The interesting thing about this is that Ben McMahon wasn’t fluent in Mandarin.  His parents couldn’t understand him.  And he could no longer speak English.  In an instant, he was transformed.  After a few days, he remembered how to speak English, but his Mandarin has never left him and now the young man serves as a tour guide in Shanghai, and has also hosted a Chinese television program.[1]

The BBC reported the story of a woman who had been unable to conceive a child. A rash of tests indicated a sizable tumor that was apparently preventing conception.  She scheduled surgery, but when she arrived at the hospital she was found to be pregnant, and so the surgery was delayed.  Nine months later she gave birth to a healthy child, and the tumor had disappeared.  Nine years later, she remains cancer-free.[2]

A man came to me following a worship service I’d led.  He was deeply troubled by something that had happened. He came to that service because he wanted to be polite to a friend, but in actuality he considered himself to be non-religious.  But as the service went on, he experienced a physical sensation.  “When they were reading the Bible – from the book of John,” he said, “I felt something happening in me.  I can’t really say what it was, other than to say that I knew this was true.  I need you to tell me what that means, Dave.”

Have you heard stories like this?  Some amazingly miraculous cure or life change that happens seemingly instantaneously?

And now, you might be tempted to say, “Um, Pastor Dave, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Mark with you since December.  We have sat here as you’ve told us about a Jesus who has driven out demons, restored speech, and healed people from deafness, paralysis, uncontrollable bleeding, and something called a ‘withered hand’.  He even brought back a little girl from the dead.  So, yes, Dave, we haveheard stories of sudden cures and healings.”

Jesus Healing the Blind Man, Eduourd Leon Edy-Legrand, 1950

Yeah, but today’s reading is different – and I love it for the ways in which it is different.  The Gospel passage for today presents us with a gradual healing – the only such healing in the Gospel of Mark.  All the other times when Jesus encountered a situation that was not quite right, he essentially snapped his fingers and the blessing was bestowed.  Sometimes, those who were afflicted were not even present – he just said the word, and they were made well.

But not today. In Mark 8, we read of a blindness that was for some reason, unique.  Jesus apparently had to “try again” with this one.  Did that strike you as strange?  Why do you think that the man couldn’t see after the first time Jesus touched him?

There are a few interesting theories out there.  One that particularly struck me was perhaps the simplest one – the man couldn’t see at first because, well, he had saliva in his eye. Once Jesus wiped the spit away, things cleared up for him.  However, if we spend much time thinking about that, the problem we encounter is that the man said he could see – but he didn’t see exactly right.  He saw people, but they looked like trees to him.

Another source suggested that this man was afflicted with a particular type of blindness that was especially difficult – and so Jesus had to try again.  Again, this can’t really be the case – just a few chapters ago, Jesus called a child back from the dead.

So what is going on here?  Why a two-stage healing?

Do you remember back in April when I talked to you about one of the unique features of Mark’s writing?  There are lots of places where our narrator starts in on one story (like the death of Jairus’ daughter), and then interrupts himself with something else (like the healing of the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years), and then returns to the original story (and the resurrection of this little girl)? Mark often uses one incident to comment on the things that happen just prior or subsequent to the one at hand.

I’d like to suggest that we are smack dab in the middle of another Marcan sandwich.  Last week, we read the story of Jesus’ conversation with the fellas in the boat, and we noted how he asked at least eight questions, including “Don’t you see what’s happening here?” and “Do you have eyes, but can’t see?”  He seems to be suggesting that his disciples ought to have had a deeper level of understanding and awareness about what was going on, but for some reason, they weren’t quite there yet.

That reading is followed with the account you heard today, of the man who couldn’t see at all, and then could see a little better, and finally, had 20/20 vision.

The very next passage – which we will notread today – relates how the apostle Peter is able to name an amazing truth about who Jesus is and what Jesus is about – but he does so imperfectly, and he winds up being sent back to the drawing board by Jesus.

I think that the reason that Mark tells us about the time that Jesus chose to heal a man in stages is because it is a physical, tangible illustration of the fact that in our own spiritual lives, not every awareness is instantaneous, not every revelation is sudden, and not every healing is completed at once.  There are some things about Jesus that it apparently takes time and experience for his followers (including us) to “get”, and there are aspects of our thought and discipleship that require some growth and maturity.

That thought, which is a suggestion here in the Gospel, is turned into a command in other parts of the New Testament.  The pastor who wrote to her or his congregation in the book of Hebrews, for instance, talks about the fact that those folk have been slow to mature and grow in their faith.  In another epistle, Pastor Paul writes to his church in Corinth and says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child, I talked like a child, I reasoned like a child; but when I became an adult, I put childish ways behind me…”  Again, the implication is clear: the presumption is that the Christian life involves a journey, a way of growing and maturing and transforming that changes us in all kinds of ways.

I want to emphasize this because in some circles of Christianity today there is a school of thought that goes something like this: “I didn’t used to be a Christian, and then I prayed a certain prayer and I found that I accepted certain beliefs as true, and now I am a Christian.”  Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with praying, and I’m all for beliefs… but any view of Christianity that can be boiled down to yes/no, in/out, on/off is, at best, incomplete.  If we are not growing in our capacity to love, to live like Jesus, to see things as Jesus might see them, well, then, I think our discipleship is incomplete.

Did you pray the prayer?  Did you “accept Jesus”?  Great! Then you can see some trees walking around, perhaps.  But I think that it is possible that many of us are in need of, and waiting for, the “second touch”.

Here’s what I mean by that: in the Gospel, we see that there is an amazing change after the man’s first encounter with Jesus.  Here is a person who was locked in a prison of darkness, and now all of a sudden, there is light. There is motion.  There are colors.  In terms of sight, things are better now than they have been for ages – and perhaps forever.  Sure, it’s not perfect, but, WOW! What changes have already occurred.

It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where the man backs away as Jesus comes to him a second time.  He could have refused – he could have said, “Hey, back off, Jesus.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m really thankful for all that’s happened, but what if you screw something up?  I mean, what if it gets worse?  Can’t you let me enjoy the movement and the light and the color for a bit?”

But of course there is not a whiff of that in the text at hand.  Last week, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Don’t you get it? Can’t you see?” They pretty much replied, “Um, not, not really…” and they stuck around him because they thought that the odds of them getting it right were higher if they stayed in the boat.  Similarly, today, Jesus says to this man, “Can you see anything?” And he says, “Well, sort of… It’s a little off, though…” and he allows Jesus to approach him again and bring full and complete healing with the power of the second touch.

This morning, you and I got out of bed and entered into a reality that is, at best, fractured.  There are not many places we can go to escape the caustic language that is being used in the public sphere.  Confrontation is the order of the day.  Fear is endemic – it is all around us.  And when we see all of that, it is tempting to want to dig in our heels.  To believe that it is up to us to defend the last sentence we heard before falling asleep last night.  We are compelled to defend our ideas.  To believe that it’s up to us to stand firm and unchanging…

I haven’t seen many of these, but I’ve been privileged to see a few: this is a steinbok, a dwarf antelope native to Africa. Steinbok have a very interesting defensive posture: when they sense danger and become afraid, they freeze. They hope that if they are motionless, the predators will just walk by and leave them alone.  In fact, their name comes from the Afrikaans words that mean “stone” and “buck”.  A statue of a deer.

While freezing in place and refusing to move may be an effective strategy for a dwarf antelope on an African savannah, it’s not a useful discipleship tip for Christ followers in the 21stcentury.  May we have the grace to refuse to stand still and instead anticipate ways that we can grow in our understandings of what it means to be those who belong to and stick with Jesus.

I think that a part of that means connecting with our friends and allowing our friends to speak truth into our lives.  Sometimes we fall so in love with the things that we think that we forget to be open to the fact that Jesus might be doing something new in the world and that I might have an incomplete revelation as to what that is.  And so when we are struck with a massive cultural change and we want to defend our “ideas”, we lose sight of the people – and so we lose sight of the truth.

Jesu Healing the Blind Man, Ethiopian Icon

This whole episode takes place because a group of people thought it was important to bring their friend to meet Jesus.  He’s passing through Bethsaida and “some people” brought a man to Jesus.  If it hadn’t been for those friends, the man’s vision impairment would have been unchanged.  And at the end of the story, Jesus circles back to the importance of choosing friends wisely: he tells the man not to waste his time going into the village, but instead to get home and spend time with those who are most important to him.

As we seek to grow in our ability to follow and stay with Jesus, may we have the courage to bring our friends to the places where they are likely to encounter him.  May we also have the wisdom to understand that there are some things that we ourselves need to be taught; there are some ways in which we ourselves need to grow; there are some postures in which we ourselves need to become less rigid as we seek to follow the Lord.

I like to think that once upon a time, years after this happened, the man who’d been healed that day was sitting around reading through Mark’s gospel. And maybe he read all about the people who had been healed instantaneously, or even from afar.  If that happened, do you suppose that he slammed down the scroll and exclaimed, “Oh, for crying out loud!  Some of those folks were healed like that, and I had to have him come at me twice?  What’s wrong with me?”

Of course not.  I think it’s far more likely that he stopped to give thanks to God for the gifts of vision and sight, and to remember that the important thing is that because his friends were willing to walk with him toward Jesus, nothing was ever the same again. I don’t know if your walk with Jesus has been free and easy, or more like a wrestling match.  But I do know that you’re not where you used to be, and you’re not where you’re going to be.  Let us hope for the power of the second touch as we celebrate and cultivate what is important, right, and true in our world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]https://www.medicaldaily.com/australian-man-comes-out-coma-able-speak-mandarin-fluently-not-english-302046

[2]http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150306-the-mystery-of-vanishing-cancer


The Secret Smallness

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On March 11 we continued our walk through Mark 4.  Our texts included Mark 4:21-34 as well as Zechariah 4:6-10a. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

This is a photo of one of my favorite trees in the world, the baobab. Baobabs are found in many parts of Africa, as well as in India, Ceylon, and Australia. They are curious and majestic trees for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that they grow slowly and deliberately and can seemingly live forever. It’s estimated that a mature tree such as this could be as many as 5,000 years old. In fact, I once saw a photo of some of the first Scottish missionaries posing under a baobab tree near Lake Malawi in the late 1800’s. Next to that was a picture of their descendants in the same spot that was taken a hundred years later. If a viewer were to compare the photos, that person would discover that the individual branches of the tree are essentially unchanged – even after the passing of a full century. These trees are seemingly impermeable to change. Remember that.

The Calling of Saint John and Saint Andrew, James Tissot (c. 1890)

Since Advent, we’ve been walking through the Gospel of Mark. We heard in chapter one, verse one, that it contains the good news of Jesus, the Son of God. Thus far, we’ve gotten a little bit of background on Jesus and, more importantly, we’ve gotten to see him at work. After bursting onto the scene announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand, He’s healed people, driven out demons, garnered great attention, elicited significant reactions, and gained both followers and foes. In the first section of his Gospel, Mark is crying out to the reader, “Look! Pay attention! Something really big is happening! This guy is worth listening to!”

And, in chapter four, we get to hear what he says. Mark 4 represents the longest stretch of teaching about the Kingdom from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel. We’ve been told that it’s important, and we’ve been told that it’s at hand. Last week, we heard the single longest parable about the Kingdom as we listened to the story about the farmer and the seeds and the various types of soil. In that, we heard that the Kingdom is God’s idea, and that we are called to be receptive to it and to allow that Kingdom to do its work in us, on us, to us, and through us.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues this teaching by apparently piling on the parables of the Kingdom as if they were bullet points – three quick comparisons given in short order.

Just after explaining the parable of the sower to his followers, he says, “You know, as I think about it, this stuff is like a lamp. It’s significant. It’s out there in the open. It’s public!” As soon as he’s finished talking about the necessity for those who would follow him to be receptive to the work of the Kingdom in their lives, he warns them that this is all to be done for all to see; that nothing is secret forever, and that their lives will be visible to the world.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Practicing Resurrection, says much the same thing about those who would live out the Kingdom ethic in our world:

Church is an appointed gathering of named people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death of civilization, death of marriage, death of careers, obituaries without end. Death by war, death by murder, death by accident, death by starvation. Death by electric chair, lethal injection, and hanging. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life, life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus life. This practice is not a vague wish upwards but comprises a number of discrete but interlocking acts that maintain a credible and faithful way of life, Real Life, in a world preoccupied with death and the devil.[1]

I think that Peterson is spot-on when he talks about a real community – with named persons engaged in intentional practices. It’s not just an idea – if the Kingdom is visible anywhere, it’s visible in time and space through the lives of people – people like, well, you and me.

Now, understand me: this part is not in the Gospel of Mark, but here’s what I think happens next: I think that Jesus uses the parable of the Sower to teach about the Kingdom of God and then he offers these warnings about everything happening out in the open and people paying attention and having ears to hear and that causes at least some of his followers to shift their feet a little and maybe start avoiding eye contact. I think that more than a couple of these fellows get a little nervous and glance at him questioningly as if to say, “Um, you see, Lord, well, the thing is… do you know us? Because, er, we’re not really all that special. We screw up. A lot. And most of us can be pretty unreliable at times. If you’re counting on your named, particular followers to be doing all this stuff in public, well, you might want to rethink a few things. You might have to find some new followers who aren’t as likely to, you know, get it wrong.”

The reason I think that something like that must have happened is because of the tenor that Jesus’ teaching takes next: he goes right back to the language of farmers and seeds.

“Maybe you didn’t get it during that last story,” he says, “so here it is again. The Kingdom is like a seed that is scattered on the ground.” He tells a story about a seed that is self-contained and sufficient. The seed, he says, has everything it needs to produce fruit. As he tells this story about the man who scatters seed and then goes about his daily business, he’s reminding his disciples (then and now) that the Kingdom doesn’t need us to somehow try harder in order for it to work. Somehow, mysteriously, the seed is set into the soil and the seed itself – the Kingdom – does its work. And when the seed is lodged in soil that is receptive, amazing things happen – things that the farmer can’t begin to understand.

“Don’t worry that sometimes you can be such knuckleheads,” Jesus is apparently saying. “This isn’t about you. It’s about what God is doing in and through the Kingdom.”

He then takes a quick breath and dives into another comparison. “Not only is the Kingdom like a seed,” he says, “it’s like a mustard seed.

You probably know something about mustard seeds. If you’ve ever bought pickles, you’ve probably seen some of them swirling around in the jar. They may not be the tiniest seeds, but they’re pretty small. And yet when planted, they become a shrub or bush – sometimes getting to be ten feet tall. In addition to providing these seeds, the greens and even shoots of the mustard plant can be eaten and thus provide nourishment for humans and animals.

So, let’s follow Jesus’ teaching here… the Kingdom is like something that is given or placed amongst us and it grows on its own. It is self-contained and mysterious, but if we allow it to flourish in our midst, it will produce fruit that is useful. Moreover, Jesus says, there will be such abundant growth that this Kingdom blessing will spill over into other spheres. Birds will have perches and shade.

But here’s something that maybe you didn’t know: mustard is an annual plant. That is to say, it has to be planted every year. Unlike the oak tree in your yard and certainly unlike the baobab tree that I love, a mustard shrub lasts for a single season. And while it may be large by garden standards, a ten-foot mustard plant cannot compare with the magnolia out front of this building or the pine tree in my yard. Compared with these, the mustard is a tender, vulnerable plant.

So here’s the good news for today, at least as far as I’m concerned. Do you remember that big baobab I talked about? The large, leafy, majestic tree that seems to last forever? According to Jesus, in this context, that’s a horrible tree with which to compare the Kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that in my mind’s eye, I want the Kingdom to be like that. More specifically, I want the kingdom in my life – or in your life – to look like that. I want it to be tall, strong, unchanging and unbending. I want it to survive centuries of conflict and human error. And, in some other places, Jesus tells us things that lead us to affirm that the Kingdom of God is able to do that.

But here, he seems to be saying that the Kingdom is planted in and designed to take root in lives that are vulnerable. It grows in people who are, in some ways, well, shaky. Sure, a bird can perch in the branches of a mustard bush, but you’re not going to want to live in a house made out of that plant.

If you plant a maple seed or a baobab, you might get something big. But it’s going to take a long time before you even know if anything is happening, and a really, really long time before you wind up with anything useful.

But the Kingdom of God, in this scenario, at least, is not like that. Instead, we are invited to participate in a Kingdom that appears to be small and mysterious; as an annual plant, mustard depends on new growth coming each year, and new seeds being produced, and then sown, and grown, and harvested, and then the whole process starts again next year. What a relief that is to losers like the disciples, and me, and you!

Listen: your life of faith is not meant to resemble some sort of statuesque tree that once upon a time had a single planting and since then has thrived through decades of unbroken growth and stability.

I think that instead, our lives of faith are reflective of the fact that the Kingdom calls us to be changeable, flexible, growing, and giving. That is an encouragement because when I sense that I’m in a period that’s difficult, I don’t have to give up, or think, “Well, this life of faith clearly isn’t for me, or else I’d look like that perfectly formed statue of the ideal Christian…” Rather, I claim the truth that Zechariah espoused: that the Kingdom is rooted in God’s power, and in God’s power, small things can win the day.

I’m afraid that too many of us, too much of the time, see the life of faith as a list of answers to be memorized or a series of principles to be learned or, even worse, a series of behaviors to do in front of my neighbors so that they see how holy I am.

But I think that Jesus calls us to a life that is characterized by a willingness to continue to start at the beginning, to look for ways to grow in insight and then apply this insight to new situations, and thereby to grow fruit in season after season of life.

20th-century philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” I think that in these teachings about the smallness and vulnerability of the Kingdom, Jesus is encouraging his followers to become learners, rather than learned; to be those who know the importance of asking the right questions as opposed to spouting off the right answers; to be those who are willing to engage in the process of the journey and not merely obsess about where we’re going and when are we going to get there.

So here’s the deal, beloved! Give yourselves a break. Let go of the expectation that you have to be perfect. Instead, give yourself ever more to the Kingdom that is growing amongst you. Offer shade where you can. Keep throwing seeds, even when sometimes you wonder if it’s doing any good. And keep asking questions. In doing these things, we are becoming, day by day, more fit disciples of Jesus the Christ, and – by his grace – better able to live in the world that will greet us tomorrow. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Eerdman’s, 2010), p. 12

At Fever Pitch

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  Our texts for January 14 centered on the day in which Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as recorded in Mark 1:29-45.  To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

I was maybe 14 or 15 years old. My dad was out of town. I heard a noise of something crashing to the floor in my parents’ bedroom, and my mother was yelling. I rushed in, and there she was, flailing in bed, yelling incoherently about things that were not happening to people who were not in the room.

I was scared to death. My mother was, I learned later, delirious with fever. Her body temperature was so high that she was literally out of her mind. She was unable to think or speak clearly because of the magnitude of the infection that had developed within her.

That’s what a fever does, right? Your body senses an illness or a disease, and as the immune system kicks in, the internal thermostat goes up. This not only helps the white blood cells, but it limits the ability of germ cells to reproduce. A fever is not usually a disease in and of itself, but rather a symptom of something else that is going on. For that reason, most doctors today are reluctant to advise fever reducers until they know what caused the fever in the first place.

As we return to our study on the Gospel of Mark, I note that fever figures prominently in our reading for today. The passage at hand is, essentially, a description of a single day in the life of Jesus and his followers early in his Galilean ministry.

The group has had a busy day at the synagogue, the center at which the local Jewish community gathered for teaching, worship, and sharing life together. The usual service of preaching had been interrupted by an exorcism, which complicated things in all sorts of ways. I can only hope for Jesus’ sake that it wasn’t a playoff weekend, because I’m sure it didn’t make church any shorter that day.

They got back to home base, which in this case was the compound where Simon and his family lived. I’m sure that they were hoping for a little bit of lunch and some R&R (and, if it was a playoff weekend, maybe they’d catch the second half…). But there’s a problem. The hostess is ill.

Christ Healing Peter’s Mother-in-Law, Rembrandt (c. 1650-1660)

Our narrative is pretty straightforward. When Jesus learns of the situation, he cures her of her disease, the fever abates, and life gets back to normal. At face value, it’s the simple story of a miraculous healing – just another day at the office for the Son of Man.

If we dig deeper, though, we see a little more meaning here. Jesus not only heals a person… he heals a woman. And he not only heals her, but in doing so he touches her. He broke the laws of purity by approaching a sick woman, and did so again by touching her, and compounded that by allowing her to prepare him a meal. It is unheard of for a religious leader to act in this way.

And, don’t you know, word gets out, and it gets out fast. By the time the dishes had been done and before the post-game show ended, folks were coming out of the woodwork to meet this man. Mark tells us that the whole city was camped out on Peter’s front porch. The fever of illness may have left Peter’s mother-in-law, but messianic fever – the desire for a messiah, or a savior – is growing throughout Galilee. Jesus and his friends are up half the night healing the neighbors and casting out their demons.

As people all around him are caught up with fever, what does Jesus do? He takes a step back, he reflects, and he seeks to center himself in prayer. While everyone else is still sleeping, Jesus gets up early and finds somewhere to be alone, where he literally steps away from the feverishness that surrounds him.

Saint Jerome was one of the early scholars of the Christian church, and is best known today as the man who translated the Bible into Latin. We call that work the Vulgate. Around the year 400, Jerome was in the church in Bethlehem and he preached on this passage, where he noted the fact that not all the fevers of this life are manifestations of physical illness. He said,

O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand, for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees.[1]

The wise man recognized that when Jesus went out to spend time with his Father, he was doing exactly the same thing that he had done with Simon’s mother-in-law: he was seeking the Divine touch in a world that had become frenzied and ill-at-ease.

Just think with me for a moment now about your own life. What is it in your world that really has you going right now? Where have you experienced feverishness? You may not be my mom, laying in bed unable to speak in complete sentences, but is there a part of your life that has been affected by anxiety, or fear, or a sense of disorientation?

Where is that coming from? What causes the fever in our lives? Do you think you know? Are you sure?

My sense is that sometimes, in our spiritual lives as well as in our physical bodies, we tend to blame the symptom (the fever) as the source of our dis-ease, rather than the root cause itself.

For instance, when the preacher asks you to think about the stuff that sets you off, isn’t it tempting to erupt? “Of course I’m a mess! I’m all bent out of shape because he’s an idiot!… she’s out of control! Bills! Jobs! Family conflict! That’s what’s making me sick right now, Pastor…”

Maybe.

But is it possible – even remotely – that a part of our dis-ease or dis-comfort with life right now comes from an even deeper place: namely, that we are not in control? All of these things are happening around us or even to us, and it seems as though there is nothing we can do to stop it…?

What would happen if we took a page out of Jesus’ book and sought to ask God to help us deal with our core fears and anxieties so that external triggers such as those would not matter so much?

In your body, if you get a fever and take an anti-inflammatory, there’s a good chance that the fever will diminish. Yay! But there’s also a pretty good likelihood that the source of the infection will remain or even strengthen (boo!).

If I am upset and unable to function the way that I think I should because I am not in control, one way to make me feel better is to manipulate the situation to my liking. If you do what I want, I’ll feel better. If she stops being a jerk, I’m fine.

Except the infection of pride, or fear, or insecurity is still there. You may have managed to take the edge off my feverishness by placating me somehow, but my inner reality has not changed at all.

The hope of the Gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and recorded by Mark is that Christ came to free us not only from the discomfort that our fears and anxiety cause us, but from those root causes themselves. The gift of new life in Christ allows us to effect a fundamental change in the way that we experience the world around us.

Remember the first imperatives that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Mark: Repent (turn around!), Believe (open your hearts to a new way of being) and Follow (get in line behind me!). Sometimes we forget that a big part of following Jesus is, well, following. Embracing life in Christ is confessing that I am not the master of my own destiny and I am not the one setting the direction…

“Oh, great, Pastor. So now you’re saying that if only I would relax, and believe in Jesus, and somehow be a better Christian that everything will be just fine for me…”

No. Not at all. Our Gospel reading for today has shown us that Jesus calms a fever in Simon’s mother-in-law and that Jesus knows how to avoid a fever in seeking time with the Father. The remainder of the text illustrates that Jesus is also pretty good at inciting fever as well.

While he’s in the quiet place, deep in prayer, the disciples get up, grab a bagel, and form search parties to find Jesus. When they finally locate him, what do they say? “Everyone is looking for you! You’re a star! This is great!”

Why are the crowds looking for Jesus? Here’s a clue: it’s not because they want to hear another sermon. They want healing. They heard about what happened to the fever, and in the exorcism; they know about all their neighbors who have experienced new health and vitality, and they want Jesus to fix their problems now.

And look at how Jesus responds: “You’re absolutely right! People do need this! So let’s get cracking! Let’s leave this town – and these crowds who are already looking for me – and go to those other places and proclaim the Gospel. It’s why I came, after all.”

Jesus was gaining fame as a healer – but here he indicates that’s not his primary mission. He states his goal quite plainly: “Let us go somewhere else…so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

So if you thought you heard me say that following Jesus means that all your fevers will disappear and life becomes nothing but sunshine, then my message hasn’t come through clearly.

Jesus didn’t make life easier for people! Jesus, time and time again, comes onto the scene and in preaching “Repent” and “Believe” and “Follow”, causes great disruption. He re-orients the world. And again, it’s all there in scripture. Look at what happens by the end of the chapter: Galilee has become crazy town. The excitement there is at nothing less than a fever pitch – because the people knew that Jesus was a game changer. In a matter of days, in a society that knew nothing of social media or mass communication, Jesus was unable to show his face in public without being mobbed. It only got worse after he cured the leper – a man who, like Peter’s mother-in-law, a highly respected public teacher like Jesus had absolutely no business getting anywhere near, let alone actually touching. The presence of Jesus, oddly enough, made Galilee a more unpredictable place.

That is no less true in our own lives. If we are serious about following Jesus, then we hear his call at the core of our beings. We invite him to speak truth to the deepest places in our lives, and while I am here to say that he has the power to bring strength, and peace, and calm… we have to be ready for the fact that he might expect us to leave our neighborhoods, touch a few lepers, confront some hostility, change our careers, evaluate our college majors, and use our time and money in a way that is not necessarily in line with what we’d choose if we were the leaders… which we’re not.

Being a follower of Jesus will not make your life easier.

And I’ll look at you, who have accepted the church’s invitation to become deacons and elders, and say it again: being a member of or a leader in the church does not mean that your problems will go away. Sometimes, it means the exact opposite.

You might remember C.S. Lewis as a Christian author, the writer of such works as The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters. But before he wrote any of those things, he was an atheist. Yet in the context of his relationship with friends like J.R.R. Tolkien, he came to embrace Christianity. When reflecting on his conversion, he wrote,

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know. From the moral point of view, it is very difficult! I am not approaching the question from that angle. As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[2]

Lewis discovered what I have also learned: that while the life of discipleship can sometimes be challenging, it is also good. It puts us in the place where we can be who we were meant to be. And so, as our world is seemingly perpetually on edge about something or other, we can simply pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Drive out our demons, our doubts, and those fevers that will distract or diminish us. Make us into who you want us to be. And make us feverish about following where you lead.” Thanks be to God, Amen.

[1] Corpus Christianorum, LXXVIII, 468

[2] God in the Dock (Eerdman’s, 1970), pp. 58-59.

Why Should I Stop Thinking?

I continued to reflect on our Malawian journey in worship on August 2 2015.  Our scripture passages were Acts 18:24-28 and Hebrews 5:11-14

Most of you are aware of the fact that I am fresh from one mission trip and packed for another. You need to know that the time in Malawi, Central Africa, was just amazing. You’ll hear more about this next week, but I need to tell you that there was more that happened in those two weeks than I ever thought possible.

PartnershiplogoOf particular joy to me was having the opportunity to see the Christians from South Sudan and our partners from Malawi enjoying the time together so completely. For a long time, our church has partnered with the church in Malawi, but a couple of years ago that was broadened to include Christians in the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan. Since then, I’ve often used the analogy of a piece of furniture, saying that while one might be able to rest on a two-legged chair, a three-legged stool was far more practical and durable and comfortable. The possibilities of this trans-African partnership are just beginning to be explored, and the future appears to be very, very rich.

An elder from South Sudan put it this way: “We are glad to be in partnership with people in Pittsburgh, but we think that we will profit far more from our relationship with Malawi than with the USA.” It was just glorious to watch these two churches begin to fall in love with each other, and I believe that this could really change the face of mission in Africa if not the world.

This trip was amazing; it was important; it was life-changing; and it may have even been life-saving.
Three years ago, the church in Malawi presented itself to the world, so far as I could see, as a “receiving” church. It was chronically needy. Our friends there had come to believe in themselves as people who will always need help from the outside just to get by. When the Christians in South Sudan came alongside, that offered believers in Malawi the chance to re-evaluate their strengths and resources and gifts. Together, these two African churches have discovered wonderful opportunities.

As we were leaving Malawi, a good friend of mine who is in leadership in that church said to me, “It was a good trip, but I wish it was not yet over.” And I smiled, and shook his hand, and said, “You bet! I wish we could stay here longer.”

He shook his head and said, “No, not here. I wish that you were leaving here and spending three more days in Mozambique. The Christians there are struggling, and we are trying to help them. In fact, I believe that next week we will be signing a partnership agreement with the church in Mozambique.”

I looked at him in surprise and exclaimed, “Hey, really? Are you already trying to change my three-legged stool into a four-legged desk?” And I laughed.

And my friend, this beautiful Christian man, looked at me and said simply, “Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian, after all.”

I’m sorry to say that immediately I thought of a whole new line of t-shirts and hoodies that would bear that message: Why should I stop thinking? I am a Christian!

StopTHinkingShirtThe reality is, however, that for far too many people, Christianity is about saying “yes” to a set of ideas. It’s saying, “I believe that Jesus is my savior,” and that’s it. We say what we believe when we are twelve, or twenty-two, or forty, and from that point on, the focus is on defending that amazing truth from every changing, from ever developing, for fear that we somehow “lose it”. We concentrate on some moral behavior (we don’t smoke or drink or sleep around or vote for the wrong people), but the core of our spiritual identity, in too many cases, does not change. Ever.

How many friends do you have who might say something like, “Of course I’m a Christian. I became a Christian on the afternoon of September 19 2009.”? For these people, the Gospel is a line of some sort. I’m not a Christian. Now, I’ll pray that prayer, and cross over the line. I am a Christian. That’s it, right? I just wait here, then I’ll die, and I’ll get to go to heaven. Amen.
As popular as that theology seems to be in some circles, there’s a problem with it: it’s just not biblical. Faith is alive. It is living and vital. And as with all living things, the normative state for faith is to grow. Which means that our faith will change and evolve over time.

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul, fresco in the Basilica of St. Paul in Rome Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

Ss. Aquila and Priscilla with St. Paul,  Domenico Tojetti (1807–1892)

In Ephesus they had a little church. It had been started by a guy who knew a little about changing and growing over time, the Apostle Paul. As that congregation experienced numerical and spiritual growth, Paul was joined by two colleagues, a husband and wife team named Aquila and Priscilla. Eventually, Paul pulled up stakes and moved on. Not long after that, Apollos wanders into town.

Apollos?And Apollos seems to be the real deal: he’s tall, he’s good-looking (ok, the text doesn’t actually mention this, but, c’mon – with a name like Apollos, you don’t think he was a short fat guy with a mullet, do you?)… He’s a great speaker with funny jokes and impeccable timing.

Apollos (more likely)

Apollos (more likely)

The only problem was that he didn’t have the whole “Christianity” thing down. He was missing some key concepts on the presence of the Holy Spirit and the nature of life in Christ. When they learned that, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and helped him to grow – and he was able to change his understanding and practice of faith.

That’s not surprising in the book of Acts – after all, that’s what Christians do. And like Paul, Apollos went on to help people grow in their faith. He encouraged them to move, not simply from “A” (not believing in God) to “B” (believing in God’s activity through Jesus Christ), but to grow from “A” to “B”, and then from “B” to “C”, “D”, and even “E”. Because faith is based in relationship. Because faith grows. Because faith changes us and as a result, the way that we live into that faith had better change in and through us over time.

Listen: I love my granddaughter. One of my favorite things in the world is watching her eat. I’m here to tell you that that kid can put it away: fish. Beets. Sauerkraut. Berries. Beans. One of her new favorites is liver and onions. She loves to explore, she loves to taste, and she eats like a champ.

But every now and then, Lucia will enjoy some “mama milk”. And why shouldn’t she? The kid is not even two years old! Everyone knows that breast milk is a great source of so much that is good for human development.
But she won’t always be like that, will she? I mean, if in ten years, she’s still having appetizers with Grampy and then taking her main meal via breast milk, well, we’ve got a problem. Eleven year olds move and think and act and operate a lot differently than do 20-month olds. Or, at least, they should operate differently than toddlers.
We know that, right? We get that concept in the physical sense…but not always spiritually.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews – who many scholars believe might very well have been Paul’s friend Priscilla, says to those in her congregation, “What the heck is wrong with you people? Grow up already! You ought to be mature by now – even teaching other people, for crying out loud. But you’re still over there, drinking up the milk like it’s going out of style. You need something you can sink your teeth into – you’re too big for this kiddie stuff anymore.”

One of the magazines that comes to my study each month is a little volume called The Christian Century. It’s full of news about the world of religion, insightful articles on faith and belief, and a lot of other stuff I don’t usually have time to read. For many years, The Century has had an occasional column entitled “How my mind has changed”, in which a prominent theologian or spiritual leader talks about her or his journey of faith, and how that person has been led to change denominations or shift views on baptism or adopt some new pattern of behavior. I love those columns, even when I disagree with them, because too often we look at someone and say, “So and so is this.” When we say that someone is “like that” all the time, we forget that each of us is, or ought to be, where we are as a part of a process.

This morning I wonder: If the Christian Century came to you and offered you the chance to write a column on “how my mind has changed”, could you do it? Are there places in your life where you used to be uncertain, but now you’re holding on tightly? Or perhaps the opposite – something about which you were convinced five years ago that now has you scratching your head?

Or has your faith and your life become so calcified that it looks exactly like the old Doxology: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be; world without end – Amen!”?

Beloved, the Lord intends for us to grow – to grow physically, to grow emotionally, to grow spiritually. I know darned well that you’re not the same person I met the first time we laid eyes on each other – not physically, anyway. How have you changed spiritually? Where have you grown?

If you’re not sure how to answer that, then let me encourage you to take this last month of the summer, these “dog days”, and spend some time shaking yourself up. Borrow a book from a friend and then talk about it afterwards. Ask Gabe Kish to tell you about his trip to Africa. Study an issue that has you perplexed. Go serve up a hot meal with some hungry people at The Table. Engage someone who is really different from you. Read a part of the bible that has scared you in the past. Sit with your pastor for a season. Learn to pray out loud. Visit someone who is grieving. Write a letter to a prisoner. Show up at a protest or a march. Ask someone about her tattoos. Give something away.

Some of you are going on a mission trip this week. If you come back unchanged, then I’m not a very good pastor – or you’re not a very good participant. We will be staying on a farm in the country at a shelter for homeless families. How will that affect you? Which of these people with whom you’re sitting will be a better friend when you get back? How do you think the next year in school will be different because you’re participating in this trip? Have you ever really spoken to someone who’s been homeless before? Why does God allow poverty in the world, anyway? I mean, if God can do anything, why doesn’t God just snap his fingers and whip up some more food or an apartment complex or something? What’s the deal with that? Why do you have a home and the people you’ll meet later today don’t? Are you better than them? Smarter? Holier? Does God like us better than he likes them?

Cute-Kittens-and-Babies-17-HD-Images-WallpapersI know, these are hard questions. Here’s a cute photo of a kitten  to calm you down so you don’t have to think so hard.

new_ideasBut the truth is that you will be a different person next week. How? And how will you allow that change to help you grow into God’s person in this world where you are?
You are a Christian. Why should you stop thinking?