Saturday, February 8, 2020

“Planning to Fail” - February 9, 2020

Text: Mark 6:1-29

Jesus is on a roll.  His ministry of healing and teaching is becoming known far and wide.  As we have read in Mark over the past few weeks, Jesus has done amazing things.  He has healed a man whose friends dropped him into the house through a hole they cut in the roof.  He has calmed a storm on the lake.  He healed a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus has just healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years, and then raised Jairus’ daughter back to life.  He is on a winning streak, you might say. 

And then he heads to his hometown of Nazareth.  You can imagine the anticipation.  He speaks at the synagogue, and everyone is amazed.  They are astonished at what he is saying, startled at the power and authority with which he speaks.  So far, so good.  The people in his hometown synagogue recognize his obvious gifts.

But then the questions start.  Where does he get this stuff?  And what about all those miracles people are talking about?  Isn’t he a carpenter?  Isn’t he the son of Mary?

While one would think that Jesus’ ministry would be a source of pride for his hometown – “local boy made good” – people were surprised and even somewhat offended to hear his teaching. 

Why were they so surprised?  Part of it was familiarity.  They knew this guy.  They knew his family.  It seemed that perhaps Jesus was getting a little too big for his britches.  I have known people who returned to the church they grew up in to become the pastor, and it’s not always easy.  Folks will remember changing his diapers in the nursery, or that snotty-nosed little girl from Sunday School, and it is difficult to see them as a religious leader.

A good part of the reaction to Jesus had to do with first century class structure.  “Isn’t he a carpenter?” they asked.  Jesus was part of the skilled trades – in that day he would have been thought of as an artisan.  Which sounds kind of cool today, but in first century Palestine artisans were considered working class or even poor.  In a very class-conscious society, it would be somewhat unusual for someone like to Jesus to be asked to speak at the synagogue.  But Jesus is clearly special, and he is asked to speak.

The problem is in what he says and how he says it.  It would have been downright offensive for someone of a lower social class to speak in the way that Jesus did.  In a nutshell, Jesus didn’t know his place.  He didn’t stay in his lane.

And then maybe you noticed that Jesus was called “Mary’s son.”  Joseph is apparently out of the picture.  We don’t hear of Joseph after Jesus goes to the temple with his family at age 12, and many believe that he died shortly after that.  He may have simply been called “Mary’s son” because Joseph wasn’t around, but some have also conjectured that this is a way of saying that people considered Jesus to have been an illegitimate child.  People still remembered the controversy over Mary becoming pregnant before she was married.  This could have been another dig at Jesus and his authority. 

The reason that the people didn’t trust Jesus and the reason he could do no more miracles among them is because Jesus is a hometown kid and they thought they knew him.  And based on what they knew of him, he shouldn’t be able to say and do the things he was saying and reportedly doing. 

There was a lack of faith in Nazareth.  The people could not believe that God could be found in the commonplace – that God could be at work in someone like Jesus.

Now, in our reading today we have three separate stories.  Jesus is rejected in his hometown, Jesus sends out his disciples, and then there is a report about the death of John the Baptist.  The sending of the disciples is surrounded by rejection and defeat.  While Jesus has been drawing crowds and performing wonders, he is also well acquainted with difficulty and with opposition.

We will come back to the disciples, but I first want to look at John the Baptist.  What we have here is kind of a flashback.  Several weeks ago, in Mark chapter one, we read about John baptizing Jesus and then that after John was arrested, Jesus began his ministry.  Here we have the details on what became of John.  As Jesus’ ministry becomes known and King Herod hears about Jesus, he thought that Jesus may have been John the Baptist come back from the dead. 

King Herod had a kind of love/hate relationship with John.  He thought that John was a good and righteous man.  But John had criticized Herod for divorcing his wife and then marrying Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife.  Now if his brother had died, this would have been no problem – and in certain circles even expected.  But Philip was very much alive.  John had been arrested after speaking out about this, and Herodias wanted John killed.  But Herod respected John, and would not allow him to be harmed.

This leads to the story of how John the Baptist came to be killed.  At a great birthday celebration, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the gathering of military commanders and leading men of Galilee.  As one commentator put it, “When we read that the girl was dancing, we can be pretty sure she wasn’t clogging.”  She is not named here, but the historian Josephus identified her as Salome, and in legend and tradition her dance became the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”

Herod is so taken that he offers to give the girl whatever she wants, and after a quick consultation with her mother, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Herod is put in a terrible position – he has sworn to give the girl whatever she asked, and in front of a large group of people.  He chooses to save face rather than save the life of John.

John’s ministry had been stopped in its tracks.  Those who challenged the status quo too much were met with serious opposition, and this reality hangs over the ministry of Jesus and the disciples.  And then Jesus came to his hometown, where he was met with rejection.  Because of their lack of faith, all he was able to do was to lay hands on a few sick people and cure them.  Which sounds pretty impressive to me, but what he could do in Nazareth was limited.

In Luke’s version of Jesus’ preaching to his hometown congregation, they run him out of town and actually want to kill him.  It does not go well for Jesus in Nazareth, and it hurts to be rejected by your hometown.

In this atmosphere of opposition and rejection and failure and potential danger, what happens?  This is exactly the moment when Jesus sends out his disciples.  He doesn’t wait until he is at the height of popularity.  He doesn’t wait until they have had time to study and learn and grow in faith.  He doesn’t wait until they have a slam-dunk opportunity, a sure-fire success just waiting to happen that will give them confidence.  Jesus sends them out when the air is thick with rejection. 

It is interesting the details that we have about Jesus sending out his disciples.  He sends them out in pairs.  They do not go out alone.  They have one another – for support, for encouragement, for safety, for comradery.  When faced with a difficult or daunting task, or when faced with a situation in which we can expect opposition, how much better does it go when we are not alone?  We have all had that experience – when you are facing a challenge, it is nice to have someone working with you, someone who has your back, someone you can rely on.  Jesus understands the importance of community.

He gives them authority.  Jesus empowers the disciples for the work to which he has called them.  Now, this is still fairly early in Jesus’ ministry.  The disciples are just rookies.  They are freshmen.  But he doesn’t have them ride the bench.  Jesus doesn’t wait for the rookies to develop skills and gain maturity and ease in to it.  This is on-the-job learning.  They are up to the task because Jesus has sent them and Jesus has given them authority.

I think there is something for us here.  We can feel like we are unqualified.  We can feel like we really don’t have the gifts needed to take on leadership, or teach a class, or sing in the choir, or advocate for justice, or work with children.  We can feel like we may not have what it takes or maybe the time isn’t quite right for us to get involved.  Jesus, apparently, would beg to disagree.  Ready or not, he sends the disciples out.

And then interestingly, he tells them to travel light.  Take no food, no money, no luggage, don’t take an extra coat.  Just take your walking stick.

I thought back to our mission trip to Puerto Rico.  All kinds of logistics.  Getting group airline tickets.  Figuring out how to get everybody to the airport and accommodations for the night before in the Twin Cities.  Reserving vans with rental agencies.  Arrangements with the church where we would be staying.  And a long list of stuff to bring, sun protection, work clothes, would our cell phones work in Puerto Rico, on and on. 

But Jesus says to his disciples, Don’t worry about the details.  There is an urgency to their mission; they don’t have time to put together a travel checklist and they don’t have time to figure out supply-chain logistics.  A heavy load would just slow them down anyway.  They are going to have to travel light and keep moving.

Not only that: traveling light is a way to depend on God.  They won’t be depending on their own resources.  They are to accept hospitality when it is offered.  If someone invites them to stay in their home, they should stay there for the duration while they are in that town.  They are not to shop around for better offers or plusher accommodations.  They are going to have to have faith for this to work.

Basically, Jesus is preparing his disciples to face rejection.  He knows that it is not all going to be sunshine and rainbows.  He tells the twelve that if they go to a place that does not accept them, that will not listen to them, they are to just shake the dust off their sandals and move on. 

I think that is a pretty healthy way to deal with it.  Don’t beat your head against a wall.  Don’t waste your time arguing with people.  Don’t try to be someone you are not in an effort to win over someone.  Just be who you are, share the good news, and if you are rejected, you are rejected.  Just move on.

It can be very helpful to have a healthy sense that failure and adversity are just a part of life.  And we need to understand that our failures and setbacks do not define us.  Our value does not come from what we do or who we know, but simply from who we are – children of God.

It is interesting to note how many people we might think of as great successes had actually endured spectacular failure.  At the beginning of our service we sang “Ode to Joy,” by Ludwig von Beethoven.  Beethoven had an awkward playing style and preferred to write his own compositions rather than play the classical works of his day, as was expected.  His teacher called him hopeless as a composer.  Hopeless.

Thomas Edison’s teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, stating that he was “too stupid to learn anything.” 

Oprah Winfrey was fired as a new reporter because she was “unfit for TV.”  And you may remember that Michael Jordan was once cut from his high school basketball team.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, wrote about her life.  She said, “I had failed on an epic scale.  An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.  The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”  She wrote the first Harry Potter book on an old manual typewriter and twelve different publishers rejected the manuscript.  Finally Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book but insisted that she get a day job because there was no money in children’s books.

It has always been this way.  Even the heroes and heroines of faith experienced heartache and tragedy and rejection.  Moses.  Jacob.  Joseph.  Ruth and Naomi.  They all knew failure and disappointment, and the list just goes on.

Jesus sends out his disciples, and he helps them to plan for failure.  Because failure is going to happen.  Tough sledding is just a part of life.  So - we all fail sometimes.  What else is new?  It just means that we are human.

J. K. Rowling spoke at commencement at Harvard a few years ago.  She told the new graduates, “You might never fail on the scale I did.  But it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” 

Maybe what we need in our lives - and maybe what we need at First Baptist Church - is more failure.  Don’t get me wrong: we certainly don’t seek out disappointments and setbacks.  We are not out there looking for opposition and rejection.  But the only way to avoid it completely is to do nothing.

More failure would mean that we are making an effort, that we are attempting something, that in the interest of being true to who we are and following Jesus’ call, we have tried something new, something different, something challenging, something worthwhile.  Jesus helped his disciples plan to fail.  I think that maybe, Jesus was on to something.  Amen. 

Saturday, February 1, 2020

“Desperate Faith” - February 2, 2020

Text: Mark 5:21-43
February 2, 2000


Are you ready for some football?  On this Super Bowl Sunday, I know you came to church just hoping for great football stories.  So let me oblige you by sharing one.  Back in 1975, the Dallas Cowboys were playing the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game with the chance to go to the Super Bowl on the line.  The Cowboys were losing 14-10 in the waning seconds.  Dallas had one chance.  Coach Tom Landry said, “Our only hope was to just throw it and hope for a miracle.”  Quarterback Roger Staubach heaved the ball as far as he could, toward the end zone.  Receiver Drew Pearson evaded the Vikings defender, caught the ball, and ran into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

Pearson was so excited that he threw the ball into the stands.  Except there weren’t many end zone seats at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, where the Vikings played.  The football went all the way to the parking lot and it was never seen again.

A reporter asked Staubach what he was thinking when he threw the ball.  Having grown up a Catholic kid in Cincinnati, Staubach said, “I just threw it and closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.”  That play has lived on in football lore and a long desperation pass to the end zone has become known as a Hail Mary.

Well, as they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”  In moments of desperation, we have probably all thrown up a Hail Mary. 

I knew a man who died at a nursing facility in Juarez, Mexico.  He was receiving experimental cancer treatment that was not available in the United States.  He had exhausted all of the other possible treatments and saw this as his only hope.

We can all face desperate situations.  But there can be a positive side to desperation.  Sometimes we have to come to those desperate moments in order to see with clarity.  Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom in order to come to our senses.  Desperation can be a great motivator.  Our scripture for today has about it this air of desperation. 

You may remember that in last week’s scripture, Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee, where he had an encounter with the man who was possessed by an unclean spirit – the Gerasene demoniac.  In today’s reading, Jesus crosses back across the water, back into Jewish territory, and he encounters Jairus, a synagogue ruler.  Jairus was an important person, and in a time when life revolved around the synagogue, he stood on the top rung of society. 

And so to see Jairus falling at Jesus’ feet and not simply asking him, but begging him, repeatedly, to come and heal his daughter, says something about his desperation.  It is almost embarrassing to see this high official in such a demeaning position, begging Jesus, and in public.  Yet Jairus does this for love of his daughter.  She is critically ill, it looks as though she may die, and Jairus is more concerned for his daughter than he is for maintaining appropriate dignity in a social situation. 

Jesus agrees to go with Jairus, and the large crowd follows.  This was exactly the reason that crowds were constantly around Jesus—you never knew what might happen.

But on the way to Jairus’ house, there is an interruption.  An unnamed woman in the crowd reaches out to Jesus, believing if only she can touch his clothes, she will be healed.

We do not know the woman’s name, but we do know something about her.  The text says that she “…had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.  She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”

In Hebrew religion, blood made one unclean.  This woman had bled chronically – she had been ceremonially unclean for 12 years, unable to worship at the temple.  For 12 years, she had to stay away from others, lest she make them unclean.  She had suffered physically for 12 years.  But she had also suffered spiritually.

And she had suffered socially.  To be unclean did not mean that a person was sinful.  But it did mean that others stayed away from you, avoided you, and some certainly would look down on you.  It affected all of your relationships.  This would have taken an enormous toll.

And not only that, she had suffered financially.  She had spent all she had and was not any better; in fact, she was worse.  So now she was broke, a social and religious outcast, and she was still suffering.

Which adds up to desperation.  After all else has failed, over many years, she is desperate enough to try anything - even breaking the taboos of society.  The woman had heard about Jesus.  Word of his healings had spread.  Jesus was rumored to care about the poor, the outcast, those on the margins, and this kind of news no doubt spread very quickly among women in her situation.

As a woman, she was not to speak to and certainly not to touch a man in public.  And as someone who was ritually unclean, she was not to touch anyone, period.  She was not supposed to be in a crowd.  And yet her desperation gave her courage.  She wanted it to be quiet, to be unnoticed, and felt that if only she could touch his clothes, she could be healed.  So in the crowd, she touched his cloak, and immediately she felt within herself that she was well; her hemorrhage stopped.

Jesus is immediately aware that something has happened.  And has asks, Who touched my clothes?  What kind of question is that?  In a crowd of people, with everyone wanting to be near Jesus, how many people do you suppose had touched his clothes?

Imagine going to a ballgame at Hilton.  Imagine it is Kansas playing against ISU, and you are in the crowd trying to get to the concession stand and the rest rooms at halftime.  It’s wall to wall people, shoulder to shoulder.  It’s hard to avoid bumping into others.  And then somebody yells out, “WHO TOUCHED MY CLOTHES?”

It makes no sense.  No telling how many people touched your clothes.

But the woman knew exactly what Jesus meant, and her courage was such that she came forward and, as the text says, “In fear and trembling fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  There was fear and trembling because she had broken the laws concerning ritual purity.  There was fear and trembling because she was embarrassed.  But she had believed Jesus could heal her, and he did, and now Jesus’ words to her were healing words.  He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

Healing is not simply a matter of body; it involves body, mind, and spirit.  The physical ailment had been healed, but she had suffered spiritually and socially, and Jesus words are words of healing. 

The woman is not named in the scriptures.  But Jesus names her: he calls her Daughter.  Just as Jairus was filled with love and concern for his daughter, Jesus calls this woman Daughter.

And Jesus calls each of us Daughter.  Jesus calls each of us Son.  Others may see an outcast, an outsider, a nobody, but Jesus sees a dear child.  Others may see an average, ordinary, nothing special about them kind of person, but Jesus sees a dear child.  Others may see a boss or an employee or a student or a little kid or an interruption, but Jesus sees a person, and a dear child.

Just as Jairus was concerned for his daughter, Jesus cared about this daughter of his.

And what about Jairus?  He had come to Jesus in desperation, his little daughter near death, and now Jesus was stopping to chat with somebody who had touched his clothes!  As the woman told her story, he was increasingly agitated—he needed to get to his daughter.  He needed to bring Jesus to his daughter.

But just then, some people came from Jairus’ house, telling him that his daughter had died, that he need not bother Jesus any more.  I’ve always thought that these people needed some sensitivity training.  They don’t say, “I’m so sorry, Jairus,” and give him a caring embrace.  They say, “Your daughter is dead, and by the way, quit bothering Jesus.”

But Jesus overhears this and says to Jairus, “Do not fear, but only believe.”  They went to Jairus’ home.  People were weeping and wailing.  When Jesus arrived, he asked what all the commotion was about.  The child was not dead, but only sleeping, he said.  At this, the crowd laughed derisively.  Again, they may have had their doubts, but this seems a little on the insensitive side.  But Jesus went to the child and took her by the hand.  He said, “Little girl, get up,” and she did.

Together, these two stories are what are sometimes called a narrative sandwich.  Mark is especially fond of this.  You have the story of Jairus’ daughter with the story of the woman with chronic bleeding inserted in the middle.  The story of Jairus’ daughter is the rye and the story of the woman with the hemorrhage is the pastrami, as it were.  The stories are intended to shed light on each other and to be interpreted together. 

The differences are striking.  Jairus and the woman in the crowd were in very different places in life.

  • He is a parent.  Her illness likely prevented her from having children.
  • He was on top of the social ladder; she was on the bottom.
  • He was a person of privilege; his name and title are given. She is unnamed.
  • He is a religious leader.  Because of her condition, she had been cast out by her religion.
  • He is wealthy.  She has spent everything she had on medical care that did not help.
  • He approaches Jesus with a formal request.  She pushes her way forward and doesn’t ask permission.
  • Jairus’ house is filled with people who are concerned for his daughter.  This woman seems to be all alone.
And yet different as they were, they shared something.  In the first place, those in need of healing are both women – a 12 year old girl and a woman who had suffered pain for 12 years.  In a world in which women had a very secondary status, it is striking how many of the people Jesus reached out to were women.  Jesus did not view them in any kind of secondary way.

And then they both were in need of healing.  Different as their situations were, illness and pain and tragedy is no respecter of persons.  Cancer does not care how much money you have.  You can have a Ph.D. or an eighth grade education and be plagued by addiction.  You can have family and friends galore, or you can be a new person in town and not know anybody and be visited by tragedy.

Jairus and the woman in the crowd both sought healing.  She needed it for herself; he needed it for his daughter.  Both were desperate for healing, and their desperation led them to make themselves vulnerable.  An upstanding leader of the community groveled at the feet of Jesus.  An outcast broke social taboos to reach out for healing.  And Jesus honored them both.

The one thought of as lowly was just as important to Jesus as the one thought of as important.  In fact, Jesus interrupted his mission with Jairus to care for the woman in the crowd - to the point that the little girl died.  But God’s power in Christ is greater even than death, and Jairus’ daughter was brought to life. 

In each instance, healing came because someone reached a point of desperation, a point where they knew that they could not simply rely on their own power and resources.

And that is where we may find ourselves today.  Sometimes it takes hitting bottom to admit that we need God’s strength and healing.  Sometimes it takes the pits of addiction, or a terrible illness, or a shattering divorce, or the loss of a loved one, to help us see clearly.  Sometimes it takes a deep disappointment or a barely-averted disaster, to wake us up. 

But it doesn’t have to take that.  It can be something like the still, small voice of God whispering to us, calling us, inviting us to abundant life.  What these two stories together tell us is that no matter who we are, no matter where we are in life, Christ is there, reaching out to touch us with love and healing.

Jairus and the woman in the crowd were both desperate.  That is to say, they knew they could not find healing alone.  They knew of their need.  And we find ourselves in the very same place, in need of Christ’s love and power.  Amen. 

“Restored to Relationship” - January 26, 2020

Text: Mark 5:1-20

I remember doing a series with college students one time called Gross Bible Skits.  We took Bible stories and asked students to recreate these stories in a skit – they could set the story in the present day, if they wanted, or maybe come up with a completely different story that conveyed the basic message of the assigned scripture.  I remember one was where Jesus spit in the dirt and made mud and used it to heal somebody.  And then I remember this story of the demons cast into pigs who then ran off a cliff into the water below.

Well, we won’t ask you to do that this morning.  But I do want to take a closer look at this story.  First, we need to know that Jesus and his disciples had just crossed the Sea of Galilee – crossing from Jewish territory into Gentile territory.    While out on the water, a monster windstorm had come up.  The wind was blowing, waves were crashing against the boat, it was taking on water, and lo and behold Jesus was taking a nap, sleeping through it all.  The disciples wake him up in a panic.  “We’re all going to die!  Don’t you care?”  And Jesus calmed the storm.  He said, “Peace, be still,” and the wind stopped and the waters were calm.

And then they arrive on the other side.  If you had been through that experience of thinking you are going to die out on the water, and then watching Jesus just calm the storm, I think you would be more than a little freaked out.  Never mind the winds being calmed; your racing heartbeat would need to be calmed.  You would want to take some time to chill out and to process what just happened. 

Of course, they didn’t get that.  As soon as they step out of the boat, it’s go time.  Immediately, we read, Jesus is met by this wild and troubled soul.  A man possessed by an unclean spirit.  His life situation is about as bleak as you could imagine.  He lives among the tombs.  This was not a pleasant place like our cemeteries today – think open graves and the scent of death. This is where he lives.

The community had tried to restrain this man, tried to put him in chains, but without success.  He was a danger to himself, injuring himself.  He did not even sound human, crying out with animal-like cries. 

Everything about this story – demon possession, tombs, a herd of swine, a foreign land – cries out “unclean.”  But Jesus did not turn away from this man.  He commands the unclean spirit to come out from him.  The spirits begged Jesus to be cast into the nearby herd of swine.  Jesus agrees, and then the swine along with the unclean spirits rushed off the steep bank into the lake, where they all perished.

This entire story sounds bizarre and very foreign to us.  We are not sure what to make of the idea of unclean spirits.  The entire story really is troubling.  But here is the thing: while it is strange, to be sure, upon reflection I have come to see this as not some primitive tale but as a very contemporary story, a story that is played out all the time.

Cliff was a camp counselor at Lake Springfield Camp in Illinois, the camp where youth from our church would go over the summer – like Forest Lake or Dayton Oaks.  Cliff was far and away the most popular counselor at camp.  Everybody wanted to be in his cabin.  He was cool and he was fun and he was kind of a celebrity among some of our youth. 

One summer our youth group went on a mission trip to Chicago.  One evening we went to the Uptown neighborhood, a couple miles north of Wrigley Field, and helped serve a meal at a church.  Every Monday night this church has a free meal for the community.  300-400 people come every week.  Some are low-income folks trying to get by, and many are homeless people.

Some of our group worked in the kitchen preparing the meal while others served the meals to people seated at the tables.  Others went around with refills of Kool-Aid and water and talked with the people there.

During the course of the meal, Jeremy, one of our youth, came up to me and said, “I was talking with a guy over there that looks just like Cliff from camp.  He didn’t make that much sense, it sounds like he thinks he’s Jesus.”  I looked in that direction and I knew right away that this guy didn’t just look like Cliff; it was Cliff.

I talked with him.  We talked about camp a bit and he seemed to have some bitterness about the camp, and he did sort of talk like he was Jesus.

I found that Cliff was a regular at the Monday night meals.  I later called the Camp Director and learned more of Cliff’s story.  As a young adult, he began to develop mental illness.  As a camp counselor, he became undependable and kind of erratic.  Everybody tried to help, but finally was told he could not return to the camp.  He wouldn’t take his medication and his condition worsened.  His family tried to help Cliff but to no avail.  He became estranged from his family, wound up going to Chicago, and here he was.  Our youth had had known him as the perfect camp counselor, but now they knew him as a homeless person with serious mental illness.

What do we do with people like Cliff?  We try to help but we don’t always know what to do.  And in the end, we lock them up.  In many places county jails are the primary mental health facility in a community.  A lot of such people are in and out of jails, and often living on the streets or in homeless camps – which in some cases can be the modern day equivalent of the tombs where this man lived.

One of the details in this story that can really bother us is the pigs.  What did they do to deserve this?  Besides being just plain frightened by the power that Jesus shows, the loss of the pigs was also was a major economic loss.  The townspeople don’t want any more of this kind of ministry, and they ask Jesus if he wouldn’t mind heading on to the next town.

It strikes me that we can still get stuck on the economics of it all, rather than focus on the person who is hurting.  Mental health facilities have been closed and funding for mental health has been cut here in Iowa, as is the case throughout the country.  We always say there will be better care at lower cost, but we are usually only half right.  And I think of the announcement just this week that the EPA will be rolling back clean water standards.  It is another example of putting profits above the health of individuals, real people who may suffer.

The man possessed by unclean spirits was a person.  A human being.  He had friends.  He had a family.  He had a history.  He had people who cared about him.  And while he was suffering, they were suffering too.

A colleague has a friend who is the father of a son with schizophrenia.  He has tried and tried to help his son, and at this point there is nothing he can do.  The father said, “I used to see a homeless person and wonder, where is their family?  Now I see a homeless person and wonder, where is their poor family?”

If you are a basketball fan you may remember Delonte West.  He was a college star and played in the NBA for 8 years, having his best years as a pro starting alongside LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But he developed very serious mental health issues.  Although he had earned $16 million in the NBA, during a work stoppage in 2011, he went to work at Home Depot because he was out of money.  In 2012, his last year in the NBA, he played for the Dallas Mavericks.  Coach Rick Carlisle did all he could to help West.  Mark Cuban, the Dallas owner, set him up with a financial advisor.  He drifted out of the NBA, but in an attempt to help him, Dallas signed him a year later to their minor league team. 

Still later the Boston Celtics, whom he had also played for, hired him as a scout in an effort to help him get his life together.  But things only spiraled downward, he refused treatment, and just last week a video appeared of Delonte West being beaten up – he was sprawled on the pavement and bleeding from his head, somebody stomping on him - in the middle of a freeway.  What made it even more shocking and appalling is that the video was taken by a police officer who posted it to social media.  There were countless mocking comments made on YouTube.  The officer has been suspended.

Don’t tell me that the story of this man possessed by an unclean spirit belongs to an ancient, pre-modern culture.  People still suffer and we can still dehumanize those with troubled spirits.  

Of course, it is easy to talk about this demon possessed man, or Cliff in Chicago, or Delonte West.  It is easy to think about their demons because it keeps us from confronting our own.  Because let’s be honest: we all face forces in our lives that can take hold of us and keep us from living fully and freely.

This may be why Jesus made this trip through a fearsome storm on the lake to arrive at a spiritually unclean, Roman occupied, Gentile town full of pigs and swine herders.  Jesus’ point is that no one, none of us, is so unclean or has strayed so far that we are out of God’s reach.  No one is beyond God’s transformational love and grace and healing.

What are the forces that can control us?  It can be a chemical addiction.  It can be alcohol.  It can be opioids.  Life expectancy in the U.S. has decreased for 3 or 4 years in a row now.  This has never happened before.  This is due to the opioid epidemic – a force that can take hold of us and destroy us.

The forces that can get a hold of us can often be much subtler.  A voice that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not accomplished enough, not worthy of love.  There is an epidemic of worry and anxiety and self-doubt.  For some of us, grief can have a powerful hold on our lives.

We can spend our lives playing video games or watching YouTube videos or binging on Netflix while missing out on personal relationships.  We can be possessed by a constant need to get more likes on social media.  A drive for more and bigger and better – blind ambition that really can blind us to what we are doing to ourselves and to those around us.  A drive to succeed, a drive to impress, a drive to win at whatever, at all costs - including the cost of relationships.

It is not just individuals; societies in general can succumb to forces that can control us.  Fear.  Greed.  Racism.  Scapegoating.  Hatred.  We may want to roll our eyes at the idea of demon possession, but evil in this world is very real.

A couple of things stand out to me in Jesus’ interaction with this man.  First, he asks the man his name.  And he replies, “Legion, for there are many of us.”  A Roman legion was 6000 soldiers.  This man was possessed by a legion of unclean spirits – such was the depth of his turmoil and agony. 

The name Legion may mean something more.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very serious problem for soldiers returning from war as well as many others who have experienced trauma.  This man may well be suffering from trauma – perhaps trauma he had suffered at the hands of the Roman military.  Now just as “Pig” is derogatory slang for police officers, it was used in the same way for Roman soldiers.  It may be notable that the Legion is cast into the pigs.  It’s not necessarily a coincidence.  

Jesus asked the unclean spirit its name.  It was important that the man named the force that had such a hold on him.  Naming what controls us is the first step to healing.  In asking him to name what it was that had power over him, Jesus invited this man to participate in his own healing.

This is exactly what happens in Alcoholics anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous or other 12-step groups.  You introduce yourself by saying, “My name is Dave and I am an addict. “ You face it head on; you don’t run from it.  You name the force that has control over you.  That is so hard to do because it means taking a good look, an honest look at our lives.  It is a lot easier to look at others’ lives than to look at our own.  But this is the first step to healing.


And then I am especially struck by what happens after the man is healed.  Jesus has made him whole.  He is freed from the spirits that have tormented him.  All of his relationships had been broken by the unclean spirits that possessed him, so of course, he wants to go with Jesus.  Where else is he going to go?  But Jesus says No, go back to your home, back to your friends, back to your community, and share what the Lord has done for you.

You see, this man had friends.  He was part of a household.  He had a community, though that community was mostly out of the picture.  Their efforts to help him and to protect him from himself have failed, and it appears people had just given up.  We have no idea how he has got by or where he found his meals.  We don’t know how many people may be grieving for him, powerless to help.  But through Jesus’ power and healing, this man is restored to his relationships.

I think that’s the way it works.  When we are possessed by whatever demons that may have power over us, we are separated from others.  When we are freed from those things that have a corrosive power over our lives, we are restored to relationships – with God and with others.

Some of us have family and close friends struggling with demons of all sorts.  It’s not easy.  The forces that can have power over individuals can deeply affect families and friends and communities.  It can be so hard because we can’t make other people change.  Sometimes all we can do is hope and pray and be there to support them when they are ready. 

But the truth is, we all struggle with demons of one sort or another.  The Good News is that Jesus is there, that Jesus cares, and that Jesus comes to us wherever we may be.  And Jesus wants to free us and restore us to relationship.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

Saturday, January 18, 2020

“Sowing Seeds” - January 19, 2020

Text: Mark 4:1-34

When it comes to teaching, you’ve got to admit: Jesus is not an organized, 1-2-3, a-b-c outline kind of guy.  Jesus teaches by telling stories - sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes obtuse, often challenging, often provocative.  Jesus’ parables often turn conventional wisdom on its head.  They are stories for the hearers to ponder, to chew on.

We read several parables his morning, and they have to do with sowing seeds.  First, there is the parable about the different kinds of soil.  Seed is scattered along a path, where birds eat it.  On rocky soil, where it sprouts but can’t put down roots and withers in the sun.  Some in the weeds, where it gets choked out.  And some on good soil, where there is a tremendous harvest.

Jesus’ disciples ask him what it all means.  And they get a response about how the various types of soil are like various people.  The story answers the question of why people respond differently to the Word – how some can be open and respond to God enthusiastically while others seem completely closed off. 

And then Jesus goes right into the next parable.  About setting a lamp where it can be seen.  About bringing things into the open.  About sharing. About generosity.

I think that the first parable, about sowing seed in different kinds of soil, is illuminated by Jesus’ words on generosity. Think about it for a moment: what kind of farmer sows seed along a path?  Why would anybody plant seeds in gravel?  Who would scatter seeds in the middle of a bunch of weeds?

Farming today is a high-tech business.  Computerized equipment and GPS technology allows farmers to drop one seed per hole and to apply exactly the right amount of fertilizer exactly where it is needed.  It is highly efficient.  You don’t waste seeds, you don’t use more fertilizer than you need, you save on costs and you maximize both the harvest and your return on investment.  The farmer in Jesus’ parable does just the opposite — wasting seeds, sowing seed whether or not there is any realistic chance of growth.

In Jesus’ day, you saved seeds for planting from the previous year’s harvest.  You had to carefully gather seeds and store them safely, making sure they didn’t spoil or that varmints didn’t get into them.  Seeds were precious. 

But Jesus tells a story about this guy just tossing seeds all over the place, pretty well throwing them to the wind.  The farmer is totally inefficient, even irresponsible.  We call it the parable of the soils, but the bigger story may be the sower.  And this is reinforced with Jesus talking about generosity and warning about stinginess.

If the seed is God’s love, then there is plenty to spread around.  It won’t run out.  You don’t have to carefully hang on to a part of last year’s crop in order to have love to plant.  Like the farmer in this parable, we are to sow seeds of love everywhere and just recklessly, indiscriminately share the Good News — even in places where a harvest seems unlikely.

Jesus tells more stories about seeds and planting.  The kingdom of God, he says, is like somebody who throws seed on a field and then just forgets about it.  The seed sprouts, it grows, and they have no idea how this happens.  They just plant the seed, and later on, there is a harvest.

I read a story this past week that kind of stuck in my mind.  A man in Tennessee has had kidney disease for many years, and now it has gone from painful and very serious to life threatening.  Back in October two different close donor matches did not pass the final tests to be kidney donors, and it was a big blow.  A local TV news reporter spoke with the family about it.

A woman named Rhonda Jackson, who happened to live in the same small town, was watching the news that day.  She didn’t really know the man but she knew who he was.  And as she watched the news story, she somehow knew she needed to help.  She said, “I think the Lord just spoke to me that day and said ‘You need to do this.  You just need to go ahead and do it.”  So she called the number at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

She said she didn’t want to tell anyone at first, because she didn’t want to get their hopes up if it didn’t work out.  But as she kept passing the tests she reached out to the man’s wife.

And last week, when Jason Robbins arrived for his dialysis, he had the surprise of his life.  His wife, children, mother, sister and other family were there along with a woman he had seen around town but did not really know.  That woman was Rhonda Jackson, who had been approved as his kidney donor.

She said she was never scared because she knew this was something God wanted her to do.  And in fact, Jackson even had a doctor write that down as her reason for donating her kidney.  The surgery is set for a few weeks from now.

My question is, how does somebody do that?  How does that happen?  And I think the answer is, someone doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make such a generous and gracious decision.  My guess is that somewhere along the way, maybe early on in life, someone helped to plant seeds of kindness and empathy and generosity and love.  Someone planted seeds of a Christ-like spirit, and those seeds grew in this woman’s life so that when she heard about a man in dire need, she was ready to respond. 

Jesus tells another parable, about a mustard seed.  It is a familiar parable – maybe too familiar.  Nathan Nettleton suggests that Jesus is actually telling a joke here, making a parody that we tend to miss because we are unfamiliar with the culture surrounding the story.  Jesus’ story parallels one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel:

Thus says the Lord God; I will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar... On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar.  Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest creatures of every kind.
Israel is depicted as a tiny cutting that grows into a mighty cedar, strong and powerful and a place of blessing and refuge.  But Jesus turns this story on its head.  Instead of a cedar sapling, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed.  A mustard seed doesn’t grow into a mighty cedar; it grows into what is at best a shrub, and is generally regarded as a weed. 

The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is not like the biggest tree on the mountain.  The world will not stand back and admire its branches.  The work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as small and insignificant. Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor.  A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded.

But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard.  It’s a noxious weed that will not go away.  It refuses to die.  It just grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more.  In saying that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, Jesus is really saying that although it may appear small and insignificant, it cannot be stopped.

Maybe 8 or 10 years ago, we planted some geraniums in a pot.  Just to liven things up, I added a little vine to the mix.  By the end of the summer, the geraniums were doing OK, but the vine was just going to town.  It was doing so well that we decided to bring it in over the winter. The vines had spread 2 or 3 feet, so we gave it a good haircut and brought it in.

It made it through the winter and we put it back out on the deck the next summer.  This time it was all vine, forget the geraniums.  Again, it grew and grew. And then sometime in July, we were surprised to see a little blue flower.  We didn’t know that it was going to flower, but it did.

The next fall, we gave it a haircut and brought it in for the winter.  That year we had a new kitten, and we were worried that Harry would either eat it or get dirt everywhere, and we were right.  So I took it downstairs and put it on top of an old refrigerator, near a window well.  And I kind of forgot about it.  Maybe two months later, I thought, “Oh no, the vine” – and I went to check on it, thinking it was probably dead.  But lo and behold, it was thriving, with new growth reaching up toward the small amount of sun from the window well. 

Birds are not going to make nests in it, and it is definitely never going to be King of the Forest, but this vine just grows and hangs on and surprises and keeps going.  It is another parable of God’s kingdom where there is beauty and strength and power and fortitude in unexpected places.  And this vine just will not die.

I sat in with the Theology Class last Sunday.  There was such good conversation at Fellowship Time that they were pretty late getting started, and rather than watch the video for that week, they just visited.  And somehow we were talking about Bible translations and I think Johnie mentioned the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible.

If you don’t know about the Cotton Patch Bible, it is a  translation by a man named Clarence Jordan.  He was born in 1912 in a small town in Georgia.  From an early age he was troubled by the racial and economic injustice he saw in that community.  He earned a degree in agriculture and wanted to help sharecroppers with scientific farming techniques.  But Jordan decided that there was a large spiritual dimension to the problem.

So he went to seminary and earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek.  He and his wife Florence, along with another couple, Martin and Mabel England, who had been American Baptist missionaries in Burma, founded Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia.  It was an interracial Christian farming community that was intended as a model of racial harmony.  This was in 1942.  Can you imagine – an interracial commune in the Deep South in 1942? 

They were harassed and persecuted and threatened, not only by local citizens but by law enforcement and public officials, but they persevered in both preaching and living out the message of God’s love and care for all people of all races.  And Jordan wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament that is set in the American South.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans becomes a letter to Washington, DC; Pilate is the Governor of Georgia; and so on.  To capture the tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile believers, Jordan translated this “white Christians” and “black people.”  The translation made the issues of racism and injustice come alive.

You don’t necessarily hear a lot about Jordan but he inspired and encouraged Millard Fuller to begin what is now Habitat for Humanity, which has built over 800,000 homes around the world for people in need, including here in Ames.  Our church is involved with Habitat.  The Cotton Patch Gospels were made into a musical.  The singer Harry Chapin wrote the music, and that musical is still performed, inspiring many people.

Harry Chapin, a humanitarian as well as musician, was influenced by Jordan through the Cotton Patch Gospel.  Harry died in a car wreck in 1982 at age 39; the epitaph on his tombstone is from a song from Cotton Patch Gospels.  “Now if a man tried to take his time on Earth – and prove before he died what one man’s life could be worth - well, I wonder what would happen to this world?” 


Chapin shared this drive to make a difference in the world with other musicians.  One of them was Bruce Springsteen.  Harry told Bruce that he does one concert for himself and the next one for the other guy.  Half of his concerts were for charity and various causes.  This had a big impact on Bruce.  Springsteen said that he isn’t as generous as Harry, but he plays benefit concerts, works for social justice, and encourages other artists to do the same.

Clarence Jordan was a colleague and an influence on my seminary professor Henlee Barnette, who himself was quite a character.  Henlee was fired in 1961 from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after having Martin Luther King Jr. come speak at the school.  The seminary president told him it had cost the school thousands of dollars in donations.  Henlee said that it was money well spent.  After he was fired he became an ethics professor at the University of Louisville, and many years later, after he had retired from teaching at Louisville, he was asked to come and teach courses at the seminary again.  By then he was a kind of living legend and he was one of my favorite professors.  Henlee Barnette influenced two different generations of ministers, incudinmg me, with his focus on the social and ethical demands of the gospel.

A kid in rural Georgia wanted to help people who were unfairly treated.  He sowed the seeds, and the seeds grew in ways he would never have imagined, in many directions, among all kinds of people.  That’s the way it works.  The kingdom is like a mustard seed.

I think of Rosa Parks, tired after a long day’s work, refusing to give up her seat on a bus.  I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., agreeing to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery.  He was 26 years old.  He was young enough and the family had enough connections that if the boycott were a total failure he would be able to find another church.  But these were seeds that grew and grew and grew.

In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, King wrote, “[T]he early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed.  In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”  In other words, even in the face of opposition, the church was about planting seeds.

How do we sow seeds?  Often, I think, it is in ways that we might not think of as seed-sowing at all: 

  • through friendship
  • through a kind word
  • through welcoming the stranger
  • through encouragement
  • through acts of kindness
  • through speaking up for what is right and doing what is right, even when there is a cost
  • through modeling integrity and faithfulness
  • through deep prayer and heartfelt worship
  • through our gifts of time and talent and money
We are sowing seeds all the time, seeds that may bear fruit in ways we will never know.

So, keep it up.  Don’t worry about how receptive the ground will be, don’t worry about running out of seed, don’t worry about the results.  Just keep sowing those seeds.  Amen.