The Lord of the Sabbath

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 February 4 we joined with Peter in remembering the ways that Jesus confronted the power structures and pointed us towards practices that can restore our own lives.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:23-3:6.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

If you had come upon me in the college dining hall that evening and asked me how it was that I came to be wearing that lovely collage of mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate pudding, and coke, I might have said that I had no idea. But I’d have been lying.

A group of us were sitting around and, as often happens, began teasing one of our number. We fed on each other’s energy and wit, and failed to see that the more animated we became, the more sullen and withdrawn our victim was. I’m ashamed to say that I carried on more than most, and some of my peers were trying to get my attention – waving and gesturing to knock it off. During one interlude, the object of our jokes looked around and said, “One more time. Go ahead, say that one more time.” Would you believe me if I told you that four out of five college students were smart enough to shut up at that point?

But not me! I had to say it, one more time. And before I knew what was happening, my friend had flipped the trays off the table, covering me with the remains of his dinner, and walked out of the room.

My companions looked at me and laughed, and then said, “Come on, Dave, didn’t you see it? Man, he had the look. You gotta know that when he’s giving you that look, you better stop… or something messy could happen.”

None of you were there that day, but I think you know what I mean. Do you know someone who has “a look”? I know for a fact that some of you have “a look” – a way of glancing around the room and communicating that whatever is happening right now is serious stuff, and the rest of us had best pay attention…

The Pharisees Question Jesus (James Tissot, c. 1890)

According to one of the men who knew him best, Jesus had a “look”. We heard about it in the morning’s Gospel reading, where we’re told that Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”

You may have been here the morning we started our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, where I suggested that even though we believe Mark to have been the writer, the source of this narrative is the Apostle Peter. When Peter is remembering this incident from Jesus’ life so many years before, he chooses a particular word. Where we have translated “look around”, the Greek uses periblepomai. It’s an unusual word, and we find that Mark uses it five times in his Gospel. Apart from one place where Luke is quoting this story, these are the only places in the New Testament where that word occurs.

My hunch is that the old fisherman didn’t remember everything, and he surely didn’t remember everything well (for instance, in our reading for today he mistakenly says that Abiathar was the High Priest, when in fact it was Ahimelek – and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the fact that all those Old Testament names were confusing to even one of the twelve apostles…) – but Peter would never forget the way that Jesus could hold a group with his eyes and give them the look that said so much more than words could ever say. To his dying day, the disciple remembered the searching, sweeping, examination that came from Jesus to those around him.

The Man With the Withered Hand (James Tissot, 1896)

The occasion for “the look” was a worship service. Jesus had begun to engage some of the religious and political leaders of his day about the appropriate ways to honor God and the commandments – especially the command to keep the Sabbath. I think that what really gets Jesus going here is the fact that these folks who claim to be on the side of holiness and righteousness are so willing to shamelessly use a man who would have been on the fringes of society to accomplish their ends.

They’ve invited “Lefty”, the fellow from down the street with a handicapped arm – a man whose ability to provide for his family would have been seriously limited in that day and age – and they use this man as bait to see whether or not Jesus will “break” the Sabbath again and try to heal this man’s hand. There is no hint of interest in actually making this poor guy’s life any better – he’s a tool they’re using to see whether their hatred for Jesus is “justified”.

Furthermore, Jesus calls these men out for pulling this stunt on the very day that they’re claiming to honor, saying, “Is it better to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?”, knowing that they are, in fact, using the Sabbath to look for a way to destroy him (even though they’re cloaking everything in religious language).

So Jesus sees the trap that they’ve laid for him and simply glares at them, and then he goes ahead and brings healing to this man and his community. And now, these leaders have to make a choice. They could have celebrated that the man’s arm was now whole and he had a new kind of freedom. They could have asked Jesus how this sort of healing related to the Kingdom of which he spoke. They could have praised God. But you know what they did – verse six: “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

I’m sure that you remember this really well, but for the sake of the person sitting next to you who’s a little fuzzy on all of these Bible names, let me remind you that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. They oversaw worship and served as spiritual guides. The Herodians were a political party – they were people who were affiliated with and drew some benefit from their support of King Herod – the puppet governor that the Romans had set up to rule this part of the world.

It seems to me that this passage is just another reminder to us – and people of every age – that when the religious leaders and the political leaders get in bed with each other, it’s usually bad news for Jesus. Some things never change.

The broader context for this interchange has been set in the first part of our reading, the end of Mark 2. The disciples are walking through a field and as they do so, they grab a little fast food to munch as they walk. Immediately, the Pharisees point out that this is a violation of one of the rules – “everybody knows” that you can’t do that kind of work on the Sabbath. The “law” to which they refer isn’t found in the Bible, but rather a book of rules that humans had produced over the years to make sure that God’s rules weren’t being broken. You heard the commandment: God said to rest on the Sabbath, and use that day to remember God’s provision. This book to which the religious people point took that rule and broke it down. For instance, they said that you couldn’t walk on the grass on the Sabbath, because walking on the grass pressed it down, and pressing it down was like cutting it, and cutting it was work, and work was prohibited. A woman couldn’t look in the mirror on the Sabbath because if she did, she might see a grey hair, and then she might pluck it, and plucking a hair was work, which was not allowed. Pulling a stalk of grain and munching it as they walked was an example of this kind of violation, and the religious leaders are all over Jesus for being “soft” on the Sabbath.

Don’t we love doing that kind of thing? We take something that God has said and we put it in a box and wrap it up and say, “Well, of course, this is what God really meant to say… You know, God can be a little confusing sometimes, so don’t bother trying to figure it out on your own… just trust me. I know what God really meant – and you are wrong!”

God in a box is incredibly appealing for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we will never, ever get “the look” from a God we have gotten so well figured out that he’ll fit into our little box.

The truth is, of course, that a “god” who can fit into one of my little boxes isn’t really any kind of God at all. A god in a box is a god who will not surprise us, does not ask for anything from us, and ultimately has only as much power as we ourselves do.

Jesus modeled a life that was open to – and hopeful for – God’s intrusion. Jesus taught us to look for and to welcome God’s surprising appearances in our lives. While we want to say “yes” to that kind of faith the reality is that so often our existence is so crowded and so filled with work and obsessions and toys and screens and getting and spending that there is simply no room for God to interrupt. As a result, our lives themselves become increasingly difficult to interpret and decreasingly meaningful…

Here’s an example. We believe that the Gospel of Mark was written late in the first century. It would have been written in Greek and on a scroll or a papyrus. Here’s an image of one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, called Papyrus 46:

A folio from
P46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9

Can you make heads or tails of that? You say, “Of course not, Dave, it looks like Greek or something. I can’t read that.”

OK, so here’s the same text, translated into English. How’s this? Is that any better?

Maybe a little, but it’s tough, right? It’s all capitals, and there are no spaces or punctuation. Let’s try one more time.

Here’s the same passage, this time in English with punctuation and spaces. Does this make more sense?

Of course it does.

What’s different? The final version, in addition to being in English, has more “white space”. Although we would say that all of the heavy lifting in this image is being done by the dark print, the fact of the matter is that the message is actually conveyed because there is sufficient “white space” for our minds and eyes to be able to take in the content and process it. The white spaces on the pages of our books and magazines make it possible for us to glean meaning and purpose – we can get the message that the author intended in part because of the spaces that have been left blank.

Let me suggest that the practice of Sabbath as given by the Lord and upheld by Jesus is one of the best means by which we will be able to insert some “white space” into our own lives – a way in which we can reduce some of the clutter we encounter and therefore allow God some space that is out of the box in which to help us discern how best to honor him and serve our neighbor.

Choosing to honor God’s creational intent by setting aside some time for reflection and awareness will permit us to enter into uncertainty and ambiguity trusting that God can bring order out of chaos (it’s what he does, after all).

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the 20th century, said, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[1]

What I think that means for us is that we can get out of our own boxes by consciously setting aside some time to engage and be engaged by the Lord. Look for opportunities to wonder and to wander, and to lay down our insistence to be creating and making and spending and doing all the time.

If we do that, there’s a chance that we can get rid of our boxes as we recognize the truth that there is more to God than I can ever grasp, and there is more to life in God’s world than that of which I am currently aware.

You see, the fear that ruled the lives of the Pharisees and Herodians threatens each of us every day: what if God is bigger than we can imagine God to be?

The folks in the Synagogue that day had some idea of what God’s messiah would look like. They had it all figured out. But Jesus didn’t fit that image. And so Jesus had to die.

What about you? What about me? Am I open to God teaching me new things? I am willing to let Jesus shape me and change me? Or am I too comfortable with my own set of little beliefs and practices and I don’t really want to think about them too much, thanks all the same…

In Genesis, we learn that God created humanity in his own image. It was good. It was very good. The problem is that ever since then, we’ve been trying to create God in our own image – a god who fits in our own little boxes. And so we worship a god who has been, at times in the last couple of thousand years, a racist god, a violent god, a god who wants to make me rich, a god who tells me that I’m better than you…

Peter remembered Jesus giving “the look”. And while some of those present might have come to associate that only with the anger of Jesus, my sense is that Peter remembered it because it was so meaningful, so inviting, so searching that it changed him to his very core. May you and I this week seek to live and move and dwell in a rhythm that includes the Sabbath to the end that we might see and perceive the glance of the Savior as inviting us to new places of joy and participation. My charge for you this week is simple: find some time to sit still and allow Jesus to wrap you in his “look”. I suspect that you will be changed by that. Peter was. I know that I am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 3)

With Friends Like These…

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 January 21 we remembered the day on which the group of friends began an impromptu construction project in an attempt to get their friend to Jesus.  You can see for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:1-12. To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

Here’s a headline from the British newspaper The Telegraph: “No More Tears: Men Really Do Cry Less Than Women”. The first sentence of the article reads, “Men cry less often and for shorter durations than women, according to a study by a leading tear researcher in Holland.”

That may or may not surprise you, but what really caught my eye was the phrase “a leading tear researcher”. Until I had read that piece, I never considered “tear researcher” to be a vocational option. And yet, apparently, there are enough tear researchers that Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University in Holland is “a leading tear researcher.” And that made me wonder what you would be if you were a pretty good tear researcher, but not the best. Maybe you’d be called a second-tier tear researcher? And what if you were a horrible tear researcher, and everyone made fun of your doctoral dissertation? Would that be a crying shame? Just wondering.

But to my point… what do you do when you see someone in anguish? What happens when you encounter tears?

Our Old Testament lesson is from Psalm 6, and it describes a man who has really turned on the waterworks… Listen:

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.

You may have felt this way; perhaps not. Yet I am certain that each of us know someone who feels, or who has felt similarly devastated or paralyzed by something in her or his life. We live in a world of anxiety and fear, and that bleeds into our lives whether it’s our anxiety and fear or someone else’s.

You know how it is to be looking at the news and see the story of some horrific event – a mudslide, a famine, a mass shooting – and think to yourself, “You know what? I just can’t deal with this now…” and switch over to Jeopardy or a rerun of your favorite sitcom.

But sometimes you can’t switch the channel. It’s not happening to one of those people who happen to be over there. What do you do when someone that you love is in pain? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, I think that there is much to be gained from the example of the folks described.

As we turn to the Gospel, I will be quick to acknowledge that there are some big questions raised in this passage: what is the relationship between sickness and sin? How are faith and forgiveness connected to either of these? One of the luxuries of going through the Gospel verse by verse is the knowledge that these themes will come up again in our study, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about them at a later date. For today, I’d like to focus on the plight of this man who was paralyzed and the friends who stood by him. What do they do, and what can we learn from that?

Christ and the Palsied Man, J. Kirk Richards. Used by permission of the artist. http://jkirkrichards.com

Well, for starters, they brought him to Jesus. On the one hand, it would have been easy for them to simply quietly commiserate with how tough their friend had it. They could have shrugged their shoulders, and thought, “Hey, that stinks, but what can you do?” They didn’t leave him in a place that was difficult all alone.

And, on the other hand, they didn’t argue with him about how screwed up his life was. Nobody brought him a boxed set of DVD’s from their favorite preacher. In fact, I find it very illustrative that none of this man’s friends tried to take him to church!

A friend of mine was going through a difficult time, and she was suffering from what we might call a crisis of faith. She really wanted to believe, but was finding it difficult. She mentioned to me one Friday that she had decided to finally accept her daughter’s invitation to join her at church.

When I saw her again, I asked her how it went. She sputtered out that she was so angry that she didn’t want to talk about it. I discovered much later that when she entered her daughter’s church, the first thing she saw was a 4’ x 8’ bulletin board covered with post-it-notes, each with a name. My friend, who has a rather unique name, saw her own name right in the middle. On top of the bulletin board was the heading, “We, the Members of ____ Church, pray for whose whom we love who are destined for Hell unless they repent.”

Let’s just say that visiting that church didn’t necessarily help my friend through her crisis of faith.

Look at what the people in the story did do: they took their friend to a place where he was likely to see Jesus in action.

As we seek to be faithful in relationship with people who are struggling in one way or another, how can we bring them to Jesus in similar ways? We can pray for them, of course – and we should. And we can also invite those people to join us in places where the healing power of the Gospel is visible. It might be a place where good stories are told, like a twelve-step meeting; it might mean asking them to join us in an encounter where grace just leaks out around the edges, such as spending time at a soup kitchen or on a mission trip; it might mean simply sharing a meal with someone else who has known pain and found a way through it. However it happens, we must be willing to invite them to a place where they’ll be able to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

The Palsied Man Let Down Through the Roof, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

Another thing that I notice about these folks in Mark 2 is that they are willing to get their hands dirty in the service of their friend. When they finally get to the place where Jesus is, the house is so crowded that they realize there’s no chance they’ll walk in the door. So they climb up on top and begin the demolition work.

The typical Palestinian home would have consisted of a single story with a flat roof made of straw and mud plastered onto a framework of poles and brush. The men simply went up top and started to disassemble the home in an effort to get their friend to the place where Jesus was. In so doing, they took a number of calculated risks: obviously, what would the homeowner think? In addition, Jesus had come to that place in order to preach and teach; as they began this impromptu renovation, they were undoubtedly interrupting him. And lastly, they were doing all of this in full view of the leading religious authorities – men who took a dim view of Jesus.

Yet none of those things outweighed the overwhelming commitment that these men had to their friend. They were willing to work through some pretty incredible obstacles if it meant the possibility of hope and relief.

You know this. You know that being a friend can be, well, inconvenient. It requires a willingness to think and to act with creativity and persistence. It means giving of yourself in some tangible ways.

About a dozen years ago I noticed that I had a couple of rotting boards on my front porch. One Saturday morning, I thought I’d take an hour or so and replace them. Well, you can imagine what happened. I lifted two or three boards, and found five or six more. Worse than that, some of the beams underneath were literally falling apart. By about three that afternoon, I was surrounded by the remains of my porch, covered in filth, and using language you are not accustomed to hearing from the pulpit. Right then, my friend Glenn drove by. He stopped, and then backed up and parked. He got out of his car and came up to where I was and asked for a hammer. About half an hour later, Adam came walking down the street. He said hello, and then continued to his home… and returned fifteen minutes later with his own tools. These guys stayed until dark, by which time the porch was fixed.

The commitment of friendship means more than being “nice” or being “polite”. It means that sometimes we stop what we are doing and show up in our friends’ lives in such a way as to be available to them. And while I was and am grateful for the care that Adam and Glenn showed to me that day, they would be the first to say that doing things like spending a few hours on a construction project is the easy part of friendship. Sometimes, we have to get really messy – as we talk about relationships that are breaking, or address issues like substance abuse, or wade into the waters of depression and anxiety. Friendship takes risks, gets dirty, and, well, puts up with some huge messes from time to time.

Jesus Heals a Paralyzed Man, Cameroon Folk Art, Jesus MAFA (1973)

As we seek to be with our friends who are in crisis, though, we can learn something else from Mark 2: the power of community. Let me see how well you were paying attention to the passage as it was read: how many people came with the paralyzed man as he was brought to Jesus? My whole life, I’ve assumed that there were four, because it tells us that four people were carrying the mat. However, the whole verse says, “And they came, with a paralyzed man, carried by four of them.” The implication is that while there may have been four folks doing the carrying, the group accompanying this gentleman is much larger. He was surrounded by a group of people who were committed to giving him the opportunity to see Jesus in action.

I don’t know about you, but every day I face the temptation to go it alone. Sometimes, it’s about my ego: I think, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this before.   I know how to handle it. Let me take a look…” And sometimes, the temptation to go it alone comes from a darker place: we think, “You know, I kind of enjoy helping you out because, well, you’re so darned miserable. Hanging out with you allows me to see some value in myself because while I’m clearly dealing with some issues, I’m not half as screwed up as you are… Wow, spending time with you helps me feel so much better…”

When this happens, than any efforts that I appear to be expending on your behalf are actually all about me. If my commitment is truly to the one who is suffering and in pain, then that commitment requires me to recognize that while I certainly have a part to play, the larger community is involved in one way or another and because it’s not all about ME!

Remember that part of the story when Jesus stopped preaching, and stopped healing, and went up on the roof in order to find out who was the genius who first thought of opening up the roof? Of course not – because it’s not there. We seek to include others in the work of healing because that is the blessing of community.

The passage from today’s Gospel reading brings us a group of friends who realized that one they greatly loved was in trouble and that there were some things that they could do. They realized, too, that there were some things that none of them could do. They did what they could, and then they put him in Jesus’ hands.

The nine-year old boy was getting all ready for lunch and then realized that they were out of peanut butter. His mother told him to run down the street to his grandmother’s house and borrow her jar. The boy was gone for a long time, and finally returned – bringing with him a friend who had torn pants and a tear-streaked face. “What happened?” asked the mother. “Well,” her son replied, “I was on my way home from grandma’s when I saw my James sitting on the sidewalk. He had crashed his bike, and it was broken. So I stopped.”

“Do you know how to fix bicycles?” asked his mom.

“No, not really,” the son replied.

“Did you have any tools to give to James?”

“Nope.”

“Then what took you so long?”

“I just sat next to him and helped him to cry for a while, because it stinks when your bike is broken and your knee hurts. And then I asked him if he wanted a sandwich, so we walked together.”

There’s a lot I can’t do. I know that, and I can remember that every day. And so can you. But there is much that we can do. Be present to those in your world who are in pain. Be available to them. Lament where things are horrible. Remember, and remind them, that God is up to something. Do your best to help them get a peek at that. And look for ways to be a part of the things that God, through Christ, is doing. Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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.

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.

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?

For Crying Out Loud (Texas Mission 2015 #3)

While my wife and I were having dinner at a nice restaurant one evening,  we ran into a woman who had shared some pretty painful things with me in the past.  As we greeted each other, I asked how she’d been that day.  She burst into tears and asked if we could talk further at a later date.  Later, at a movie theatre, a similar scene unfolded with a different person.  When we got home, my wife said, “So how often do you have a conversation with people who simply start crying like that?”

Hey, it happens.

It happened today.  Wonderfully, beautifully, amazingly, today.

Sharing a meal with the family on whose home we are privileged to work.

Sharing a meal with the family on whose home we are privileged to work.

We are here along the Texas/Mexico border working with our friends at First Presbyterian Church of Mission and Solomon’s Porch Faith Community to help establish the poor in decent housing.  The welcome we have received has been inspiring, to say the least.  People are literally lining up to feed us, for one thing.  They are listening to our stories, and telling a few of theirs.  And smiling.  Oh, it is beautiful.

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that God seems to care about bodies, the way that we care for them, and the ways that we are His body.  That theme emerged again today in marvelous ways.  Listen:

A meal like this puts a smile  on everyone's face!

A meal like this puts a smile on everyone’s face!

The homeowners of the small three bedroom house on which we are working asked if they could share a meal with us as a way to express their gratitude for the work that we’ve done.  Of course, the answer to that is always “YES!” The two families got together and fixed a huge dish of carne asada, arroz dojo, frijoles a la charr, and tortillas, along with home-made churro cookies.  If that was all that would have happened, it would’ve been enough.

After dinner, I asked one of the young women in the family, sixteen- or seventeen-year-old L, about the shirt she was wearing.  She told me about her high school (the source of the shirt) and then about how much she liked her church.  As she spoke, she made several references to the fact that no matter where they lived, she felt like it was her duty and privilege to make sure that her younger siblings got to church.  I asked a simple question: “Can you tell me about what makes your faith so important to you that you feel the need to share it in this way?”

Sharing stories…

That’s when the tears started.  “I have to!”, she said.  “God has been there for me all the time – since I was born.  There has never been a time when he has left me.”  She told me that when she was born her intestine was tangled around her other internal organs and she was facing certain death, until a Mexican surgeon was convinced to attempt the risky surgery.  There were actually two little girls with the same syndrome who received the operation that night, and each set of parents was told that there was a 10% survival rate.  The other little girl died, but L survived, only to face another challenge: she needed a blood transfusion but there was not a suitable donor in her village.  An uncle arrived in town late that evening, got tested, and proved to be a perfect match.  She needed two such transfusions.

Not long afterward, she developed complications, requiring a second surgery.  Her parents had to beg a doctor even to look at her – most told them to plan her funeral and think about other children.  Finally someone agreed to try – and again, met with success.

Here's a rare shot: Tim captivating a group of children.  Hmmm.

Here’s a rare shot: Tim captivating a group of children. Hmmm.

Through her tears, my friend related episode after episode in her life where she saw the hand of God unmistakably.  Some readers might recall the story I told about the visit to a UN Camp in South Sudan where a young girl sang plaintively wondering whether God had forgotten her.  L‘s story became for me the other side of that coin as she said, “I know that God has never ever left me.  My parents, my family, the doctors – everyone was getting ready to give up on me.  But God never has.  And God never will.  How can I not share that kind of love with my little sisters and brother?  I do not do these things because I think I can pay God back, or because I want to make God love me – I do them because I love God so much for every day I have been given.”

I was privileged to share with her a story from my own past wherein I, too, learned the reality that there are no guarantees, and that all we can do is celebrate each heartbeat knowing that God alone knows how and when this part of our story ends.  You may not be surprised to learn that she was not the only one crying at this point.

Yes, that’s right, you get me talking about important things and I can be a red hot mess.  That’s who I am.

We closed our conversation by remembering the words of the Psalmist, who wrote

Though my father and mother forsake me,
    the Lord will receive me…
I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:10, 13-14)

It was a wonderful, beautiful, amazing day.  Thanks be to God.

Oh, and we also did a lot of painting, drywalling, and construction-y stuff.  That part went fine, too.

IMG_4282

Jon smoothing things out on the site. He’s all about finesse.

 

We call Bob Walters "B-O-B"  and our worksite liaison "Texas Bob" or "Tejano Bob".  They are both blessings!

We call Bob Walters “B-O-B” and our worksite liaison “Texas Bob” or “Tejano Bob”. They are both blessings!

 

 

 

This may be the first time we've ever been able to put  a finish coat of paint on a project.  It's a good feeling!

This may be the first time we’ve ever been able to put a finish coat of paint on a project. It’s a good feeling!

Did someone say she wanted a ROJO bedroom?  Mission accomplished.

Did someone say she wanted a ROJO bedroom? Mission accomplished.

 

Who Told You?

We are looking at the various components of our worship – this week, it was confession.  What’s it for, and why bother?  Our scriptures included Genesis 3:1-11 and I John 1:5-10. This message is, incidentally, the first time in my life I have used the phrase “as the Good Book says” in a sermon, and I found 1100+ sermons on my computer this afternoon.  Hmmm.  Cliche much?

When I was an eager young pastor I was in the practice of making unannounced visits to congregation members. I walked up to one house, and the door was slightly open; I could hear the sound of the TV on inside, and I rang the bell. And then I knocked. I knew someone was home – but they were clearly ignoring me.

Eager to impress with both my knowledge of scripture and my willingness to get to know people, I took my business card and I wrote “Revelation 3:20” on it. That verse says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock, and if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…”

On Sunday, my card was returned in the offering plate, and I noticed that there was an addition: someone had scrawled “Genesis 3:10.” That verse reads, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

OK, that never happened. But it should have. Maybe one day, it will.

This morning, we are continuing to explore the practices that we associate with the worship – and the Worth-ship – of God. You might recall the last time I was up here, we remembered that our public gatherings start with an announcement that we are a new people who come together in a new time and a new space – we “waste” our time in order to be fully present to the one who has created time and placed us within it. Today, we’ll talk about how we move more deeply into that presence by clearing the decks – by preparing our hearts, minds, and spirits to encounter the Word that is promised.

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

That is to say, this morning, we’re going to be talking about confession.

I know a pastor who sat with me for forty-five minutes one day and said, “You know, Dave, I just don’t get it. Why do you want a prayer of confession in your Sunday morning worship? I mean, we come in, we get together and sing a few great songs. We finally get to the point where we’re really “up” and feeling good about ourselves, and then you want to stop us and say, ‘I know, God, I’m a worm, I’m no good, please don’t be too mad at me…’ It’s such a downer, Dave. I hate that.” And so, to the best of my knowledge, this pastor does not have confession as a part of his regular worship services.

My own experience, on the other hand, is closer to the man who had been searching for a church in his town and couldn’t find one where he felt welcome. He came into one congregation as they were beginning their prayer of confession, and as the congregation intoned, “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed like lost sheep. We have followed too much the desires of our own hearts. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us…” he was able to relax and he thought, “Finally, a church I can relate to. These are my kind of people!”

One thing that I have learned in more than three decades of walking with people toward Jesus is that I hardly ever need to remind someone of the fact that they have screwed up. Oh, there are particular instances where I’ve helped someone to see that a particular action or comment was not right, but by and large, by the time they get to 11 on Sunday morning, most of the people I know are pretty well-prepared to own the truth that their lives are not what they are supposed to be. We know that we are broken. In theological language, we know that we have sinned. There is something that is not right about us. There is something that is not good within us.

So if we all know it anyway (which is a part of the reason my pastor friend didn’t like a prayer of confession – he said it was just a waste of time that we could use singing or preaching), why bother? If everyone knows that we’re sinners, why bother confessing?

Let’s go back to the questions from Genesis. The Lord discovers the man and the woman and he asks, “Where are you?” and, a little later, “Who told you that you were naked?”

Oh, for crying out loud, Lord, everybody in the garden knows what’s happened here. We feel bad enough already. What difference does it make who told whom?

I am unable to find the source of this image.  If you are aware of it, please

I am unable to find the source of this image. If you are aware of it, please let me know!

Listen: let’s say that I have a friend who is a 22 year-old woman. The honest to God truth is that she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. How does she know that she is beautiful? People have told her. Everybody tells her that she is beautiful. It is the truth.

One of the regulars at the restaurant where she works told her. He has told her many, many times, really. He keeps telling her, three or four times a week, as he complains that his son is a loser and his wife is emotionally dead and he himself is so lonely and my friend is so beautiful, so beautiful, and can he just buy her some dessert and coffee, or maybe something more some time…

One of her teachers told her she was beautiful. There’s an art professor down at the college who has her own photography business on the side, and she sells “stock” images for advertising and marketing to large corporations. She has told my friend several times that she is so beautiful, and does she want to sit for a few photos – nothing, much, really – and if she sits for the photos she can get extra credit, especially if the professor is able to sell those photos for a tidy sum…

Her little sister has told her. The younger sibling does not share the smooth, clear skin that her older sister has, and as she cries out over her acned face, my friend tries to comfort her, only to be told “What do you know? What do you care? You’re so beautiful! You have no idea…”

All these people, all day, telling her what everyone already knows: she is beautiful. But why do they say this to her?

And then, last night, a young man took her to dinner, and as they sat in the quiet restaurant he pulled a small box from his pocket that was full of a ring and the promises of a lifetime, and he told her she was beautiful.

Do you see? All of these people are telling the truth. This woman is beautiful. But why do they tell her that? I know, truth is truth…but how you learn it, and from whom, affects your ability to enter into it.

You and I both know that you are a wreck. You are a sinner. Like me, your life is broken and marred and incomplete. That is the truth.

Who told you? And why?

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

Statue of the Fallen Angel, in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

In Genesis 3 and in Revelation 12 and on just about every page of this Bible there is one who is called “the accuser” who stands with you as you look at yourself and who says, “Yes, you really are a screw-up. You never do anything right. I doubt you ever will. You are disgusting, and God is going to be so disappointed in you. You had better go and hide, you pathetic wretch…”

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

And similarly, from start to finish in the Bible, we hear another voice, sometimes called “the Advocate”, who tells us the same truth: that parts of our lives are bent and twisted and we are deeply scarred, but who then goes on to say “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Both the accuser and the Advocate will tell you the truth – but how? And why?

There are good, moral, upright people who will look at the brokenness of our world and of your life and who will shame you. They will judge you. They will instill you with fear, saying things like, “Oh, for crying out loud, who do you think you are? Confess, you dirty sinner! Repent! Turn from your evil, or burn in hell forever.”

These people have, in some measure, a portion of the truth. They know who you are. And yet their voice is invalid because the truth that they claim to possess is truth that is aimed at you like a weapon. Truth, told thusly, is not gift. Truth like this brings fear, guilt and shame – and, ironically, more brokenness, more scarring, more running, more hiding.

When we confess in our morning worship, it’s not because anyone here is holding the answer key and is eager to demonstrate how you have failed. We confess because we already know the truth – and we need to release that knowledge, that fear, that shame so that we are ready to enter into the fullness of the Story that is about to be told. We have a prayer of confession in our worship because we need to lay down the things that we know about ourselves so that we’ll be ready to hold onto the hope and healing that are the proper fruits of truth.

We do not confess out of a posture of fear or shame, but in order to acknowledge the situation and then to let it go. In fact, the fathers and mothers of our church have indicated that a worship service may include or omit a prayer of confession. That’s an optional part of a Presbyterian worship service. However, they go on to instruct me that it is wrong for me to invite you to confess your brokenness unless I immediately follow that with an acknowledgement that the promise of restoration and forgiveness is bigger than your confession. If you ever come in here and are invited to confess, you had better leave here knowing that you are forgiven. A half-truth is no truth.

That’s why we confess.

How do we confess? You’ve already heard a significant part of that – we confess by sharing a unison prayer, standing together and laying our sin and disruption before the Lord. Almost always, we share a common prayer and a few moments of silent, personal prayer.

The congregational prayer of confession is difficult for some. I had a man call me once, very angry, because in his mind I was making him confess to all these terrible things by reading this prayer. “I don’t do that stuff!”, he said. “Why should I have to confess it?” I simply replied, “OK, that’s fine. Just tell me what kind of thing you do do and I’ll be happy to include it in this week’s bulletin.”

nakedandashamedWhen we confess as a congregation and in public, we are saying that this is a condition: we are a greedy, racist, selfish, fearful people. Oh, I get it – today, you may be a little less greedy, racist, selfish or afraid than you were yesterday, but by and large, our common prayer covers most of us. Our common prayer names the world we live in, and identifies the air we breathe.

The confession we share here on Sundays is a part of the confession we’ll need if we are to move forward in our discipleship. In addition to our congregational and corporate confession, I believe that we need to have a personal and private confessional. Such a practice is not generally a part of our public worship – unlike in, say, “joys and concerns”, I’m not likely to stand here and say, “Does anyone have a particularly juicy sin they’d like to confess before the body?”
Yet each of us needs to have someone who knows our particular brokenness, fear, and shame so that they are in a position to help us see the power of release and redemption and healing that is available. For some in the Christian family, that means going into a little room and sliding a screen and saying, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” For others, it means hiring a therapist and asking them to help us sort out the messy truth that is our lives.

For me, it means that once a week or so, I put myself in a position where I am with a trusted friend who loves me and who knows the truth about me. In this kind of friendship, I am able to talk about where I struggle, where I fall, and where I celebrate. Those people are the ones who help me to see the difficult truths about myself without shame or fear – and when I let go of shame and fear, it’s easier to hold onto the promise of God’s best.

As we walk through worship today – and most every week – we name the truth. We are sinful people. We are damaged. We have scars. And as we walk through worship, we are met by the One who made us, who calls to us, who Advocates on our behalf and says, “Yes, of course you are like that. I have known that about you for a long time. Let’s take care of those things…”

And once this worship service ends, as you go through the week, there will not be many days when you will fail to be confronted with the truth of your own brokenness. And you will need to remember that what is true in here is true out there – that it is possible to let go of that brokenness and walk without fear towards healing.

I have a hunch that most weeks, most of you can wrap your heads around that truth when you are here…but out there, you might not be so sure. If you find that you have a hard time believing that the truth – the whole truth – is a gift; if you find that you are more and more listening to the accuser, rather than the Advocate, then call a friend. Call me, or Pastor George, or one of your elders, and we will sit with you and remind you of the truth that is true FOR you.

Acknowledge that truth. And remember that the sinfulness and brokenness of our human condition is not eternally true – but the grace, and peace, and mercy of God are, as the Good Book says, from everlasting to everlasting. Remember that. And help your neighbor to do the same. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Confession (1860?) Alphonse Legros

[2] Statue of the Fallen Angel, statue in Retiro Park, Madrid, Spain

[3] Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil