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.

Monday, January 13, 2020

“Old and New” - January 12, 2020

Text: Mark 2:1-22

There are some pretty spectacular stories in the Bible.  The parting of Red Sea…The walls of Jericho tumbling down… David defeating the giant Goliath…  These are some of the stories I remember learning as a kid in Sunday School.  But one of the very first that comes to mind for me is the story we read this morning of the paralytic man being brought by his friends to Jesus.  Other stories are perhaps more spectacular, but for some reason this one comes to mind.

I’m not sure why that is, but I have a theory.  If there are any heroes in this story, besides Jesus, it would be the four friends who bring the paralyzed man to Jesus.  Without these friends, the man does not get healed.  Now if you stop and think about it, and this may be what drew me to the story as a child, these people do everything that we are told not to do as children.

When they first bring the man to Jesus, they are unable to even enter the house where Jesus is.  The place is packed.  Now we all know that we are supposed to wait our turn, but these people insisted on getting in, and right now.  In other words, they cut in line!  Everybody knows you are supposed to wait your turn.  But these friends refuse to wait.  They decide to take action. 

They have a plan—they will climb up on the roof.  You’ve got to love a plan like that.  When I was a kid, my grandmother lived in McLeansboro, Illinois, and at the back of her house was a sloping roof over the basement stairs that extended almost down to ground level.  I’ve never seen another house quite like that—I’m sure the roof over those stairs to the basement were added after the house was built.  It looked like it was made just so that kids could climb right up on the roof.  Well – it may have looked that way, but that was not what it was for, as I was told on more than one occasion.  But that’s what the good guys do in this story.  They climb up on the roof.

And then, to get to Jesus, they not only climb on the roof, they cut a hole in the roof.  What if you received a phone call saying, “Your little Johnny has climbed up on my house with a Sawzall and cut a hole right through the roof?”  The heroes of the story mess with other people’s property.  You’ve got to love it.

And then, they drop the paralyzed man down through the roof, on his mat, to Jesus.  Jesus was preaching.  They were in the middle of the worship service.  In other words, they interrupt.  This is a huge interruption.  How many times will a child blurt out something in the middle of the adults’ conversation and be told, “that’s rude—now don’t interrupt.”  And here were people interrupting right in the middle of a worship service!

So what we have here is a perfect story for children.  The examples to follow are people who cut in line, climb on buildings, tear up other people’s property, and interrupt.  How great is that?  It is no wonder this story has always appealed to me.

But just as appealing is Jesus’ response.  He doesn’t get upset.  Of course, it’s not his roof, right?  And maybe I should say that it is probably a mud and thatch roof – I mean, they dug through it.  But Jesus is not upset by the interruption, by the commotion, by the brashness of this effort to get to him to ask for help.  In fact, he is impressed by it.  He sees all of this as an act of faith.

“Seeing their faith (that would be the faith of his friends), Jesus said to the man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Why would he say that?  It not only seems a little odd – I mean, the man did not ask for forgiveness – Jesus seems to be claiming the power to forgive sins, which does not sit well with some of the religious authorities present.  After all, only God has the authority to forgive sins.  To the scribes, this is blasphemous.  Jesus is aware of these grumblings.  And to show his authority, he says to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk home.”  And the guy does just that.

It is a great story, an amazing story.  I love the role of the four friends.  Each of the four friends held up their corner of the mat.  Each did their part, and without each one holding up their corner, it would not have worked.

From the perspective of the friends, we can read this as a story about each of us doing our part.  Each of the friends held up their corner.  What if we all held up our corner?  What if we all did our part to bring healing and hope and joy and justice to others?  What is we cared for people in need as these friends did?

I would love to think about these four friends and what they do together and just run with it, but I have been thinking about this scripture in a little different way this past week. 

With a new year, we are following the Narrative Lectionary.  It is a set of scripture readings for each week that tries to follow the narrative flow – the stories and the Story, capital S - of the Bible. 

We will be in the Gospel of Mark until Easter.  One of the things you may have noticed last week, and now this week, is that the readings can be fairly long – sometimes combining a couple of different stories, often more than one section heading, if you have those little section headings in your Bible.

So I’m wondering - looking at the bigger picture - what is the common theme that is running through this passage?  What larger point is Mark making as his gospel just gets going, with the story of this healing, of the calling of Levi, with Jesus hanging out with a bunch of tax collectors, and then this sort of odd exchange where people are asking Jesus why he isn’t fasting like John’s disciples and the Pharisees, and he talks about new wine and old wineskins?

Well, I want to go back to a small detail in the story of the man who was healed.  It is a small thing that can be easily missed – I had never much noticed it before: the paralytic’s mat.  His stretcher.  His bedroll.  We are told the man is laying on it, that this mat is lowered down through the roof.  That mat or bed roll is what makes it possible for the man to be lowered down through the roof to Jesus.

But not just that.  There is the way Jesus specifically includes the mat in the question he poses to the scribes.  He doesn’t just ask if it is easier to tell the man his sins are forgiven or to “stand up and walk.” No, it is “stand up and take your mat and walk.”  And then Jesus tells the man to do exactly that: “Stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” And then Mark writes that the man did that, immediately, taking his mat with him.  This man’s bedroll gets a lot of airtime, a lot of mentions in a relatively small number of verses.  What’s the deal?

You have to admit: it sounds like an odd thing to tell a person who has been healed:  be sure and take your sickbed with you!  Why in the world would this person want that kind of souvenir? 

Many years ago, just before I started dating Susan, I tore the ACL in my right knee playing basketball at the seminary gym.  I had surgery and they didn’t goof around with that arthroscopic surgery stuff back then.  This was a big deal and I have a couple of big scars to show for it.

I wore a cast on my leg for like 4 or 5 months.  It was an eternity.  Finally, the day came for it to come off.  What a huge relief.  It never would have occurred to me to ask if I could take the cast home with me.  Who would want that kind of souvenir?  I never wanted to see it again.  (And it was getting a little gross by then, anyway.)

Why does Jesus tell the man to take his mat, take his stretcher, with him?  What is up with that?  And why does Mark include this seemingly small detail?

Maybe it is just a way of showing that the paralytic really is healed.  Not only can he walk, he can reach down and pick up stuff.

Or maybe it is very practical – it is just the recognition that this man will still need something to sleep on now that he is mobile again.  Or maybe it’s pragmatic, given the setting: it’s a crowded room, we need the space, get that thing out of here.  (And why don’t you help clean up the mess from the roof while you are at it.)

But I am thinking there may be more to it.  Presumably this man’s life would never be the same after that day when he heard Jesus’ words of forgiveness and stood on his own two feet and walked.  He was carried in at the beginning of the story, but now he carrying the mat, and he is carrying on. 

The old life is gone and a new life has begun.  But take your mat with you, Jesus says.  Maybe it is something like this: Don’t forget where you have been.  Take your testimony with you.  The old and the new, the past and the future, are somehow related.

What follows in this chapter is in a similar vein.  First, Jesus sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting at the tax booth.  He says to Levi, “Follow me,” and he does.  And Jesus winds up having dinner at Levi’s house.  Levi had a bunch of friends over, and who were his friends?  Well, many of them were other tax collectors, along with other assorted sinners.

Like Jesus’ claim to forgive sins, his association with these kinds of folks struck people the wrong way.  It’s not that tax collectors would be that popular in any culture, but in this case tax collectors worked for Rome - the occupying power -and they were well known for cheating people.  They were seen as corrupt and as collaborators with the enemy. 

Yet Jesus called Levi and Jesus sat down for dinner with a lot of folks seen as generally unsavory characters.  The grumbling about Jesus’ ministry continued as people noticed that Jesus did not necessarily follow all of the generally accepted spiritual practices.  John’s disciples fasted, and the Pharisees fasted, but Jesus did not. 

Jesus replied with these kind of cryptic statements about not fasting at a wedding.  It would be completely inappropriate.  Nothing wrong with fasting, but there is a time to fast, and a time not to fast.  And Jesus continued, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak” – the patch will shrink and the tear will be made worse.  And no one puts new wine in old wineskins, because the wine will burst the skins.

What is Jesus talking about?  It all has to do with relationships between old and new. 

The gospel is not simply about God’s love.  I mean, it is absolutely about that.  But it is about more.  It is about transformation.  It is about healing.  It is about bringing about justice.  It is about making all things new. 

We started a class this past Wednesday for youth who are considering baptism and what it means to follow Jesus.  We talked about God this week and using construction paper and card stock and markers and tape, we all created an image or object or word collage that represented God.  Some decided to just write about it.  I was pretty amazed by what they came up with.  It was thoughtful and creative.  We talked about who God is and what God is like and came up with a whole easel pad sheet full of words to describe God. 

Love was a biggie, of course, but there was a lot more on that sheet.  Powerful, mysterious, creator, rock, shield, caring, friend, peace, kindness, justice, family, salvation, shepherd, coach.  And more.  They understood that God is actively involved with us and leading us to change, to grow, to be made new.

The paralytic man is healed.  He is changed.  He is transformed.  Levi, a tax collector, is called as a disciple.  He leaves behind his tax collector’s booth.  He leaves behind his old life.  Transformation is possible for any of us, for all of us. 

But just like that mat, we don’t simply throw out the old.  Jesus says that if you put new wine in old wineskins, the skins will burst, and you will lose both the skins and the wine.  He is concerned for both the new wine and the old wineskins. 

When new wine is placed in old skin, it continues to ferment and gives off carbon dioxide.  The old skin is unable to breathe and when a certain amount of gas is given off, it bursts.  But one can make the old skin usable by preparing it properly.  First you rinse it thoroughly with water, to refresh it and stretch it out.  In other words, prepare the old material to work with the new.

Jesus also uses the image of putting a patch on clothes.  You don’t just throw the old clothes out, but you have to patch them properly.  New material will shrink, so use old material (or “pre-shrunk” as they call it in the business.)

I did a wedding many years ago for some former students.  They were and still are kind of countercultural types and at their wedding, they wore tie-dyed clothes.  It was very nice tie-dye – slightly classier than the tie-dye t-shirts we made at Music Camp last summer.  (Not that they weren’t fabulous t-shirts.)  These clothes were made at a shop in Chicago called “Worn Again Clothes.”  I love the name of that shop.  You don’t throw out the old, you renew it, modify it, improve it, work with it. 

Diana Butler Bass wrote a book a few years ago exploring mainline churches that were doing well.  The story you hear is that churches are struggling everywhere, but she studied mainline congregations, long-established churches that were thriving.  And one of the things she found was something she called “retraditioning.”  These churches had experienced renewal and transformation, but in a way that remembered who they were and carried the best traditions of their past into the present day.  You might say that they had carried their mats with them.

We need to patch up and maintain the best of our old traditions.  We need to remember and carry with us who we are and where we have been.  But we also need to be pliable and stretchy enough and have faith enough to be open to and embrace the new possibilities which God is giving us. 

God is always doing a new thing, always working in new ways.  And even as God calls us to the new thing before us, even as God leads us to transformation, we hear Jesus’ words: “Take your mat with you.”  Amen.

“The Beginning” - January 5, 2020

Text: Mark 1:1-20
An attorney who specializes in personal injury law was at the grocery store with her 6-year old daughter when a person walked by wearing one of those foam-rubber-collar-brace things. “Look, Mommy,” said the little girl, “There’s a plaintiff.” 

Not many 6-year-olds would look at someone with a neck injury and see a “plaintiff.” But that 6-year-old’s mother specialized in the legal aspects of injuries, and from hearing her mother talk, she had learned to see through that filter. 

A movie begins. A car is traveling at a high rate of speed, driving on the wrong side of the road. There is a curve and the car is approaching a hill. You worry that there will be a violent collision – I mean, you have watched these kind of shows before. Sure enough, just over the hill, there is an oncoming vehicle. But the oncoming car is also driving on the wrong side of the road. The cars pass without incident. You realize the movie is set in England. You had been watching through the filter of American driving. 

We all see through filters of one sort or another. And we rarely see the whole picture. Now, filters can be very useful – we would have a hard time getting by without them. We wear sunglasses so that by filtering out glare and UV light, we can see clearly what we want to see. 

When it is late in a basketball game and it’s a close game, the home crowd behind the basket is waving and screaming and holding up signs and doing all they can to distract the free throw shooter from the visiting team. A really good player will be able to filter out those distractions – for them it’s just like shooting hoops in the driveway. Filters can be very helpful and even necessary. 

But not always. There are filters we don’t even realize we are using, and they can lead us astray. Look at our political conversations – there are such huge filters that people can view the same events, the same issues, and see completely different things. Sometimes what gets filtered out is what is most important for us to see. This morning, with a new year, we are beginning a journey through the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel was the very first gospel written. Mark wrote so that people could see clearly who Jesus was. 

The very beginning of Mark is not the story of Jesus’ birth, which we have just celebrated and which we read about in Luke and in Matthew. For Mark, the first thing to know about Jesus is that he was the One who John the Baptist had pointed to. John had set the stage for Jesus. John drew all kinds of people out to the wilderness for baptism – people from the countryside and people from Jerusalem, all coming to confess sins and to repent – to begin a new life. Jesus identifies with all of these people and with John’s movement as he himself comes to John for baptism. 

Who is Jesus? At his baptism, there is a voice from heaven: “You are my son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased.” Mark wants us to see Jesus clearly. 

It is interesting that while this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, it is not the end of John’s ministry. John continued to preach in the wilderness and gather crowds. He continued his work as a prophet, and it is some time later, during Jesus’ ministry, that John is executed by Herod. 

Why didn’t John immediately become a disciple of Jesus? We don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t asked. Maybe John had his calling, his work to do, and Jesus had his. But John saw himself as a forerunner to Jesus. He said, “One more powerful than me is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and tie his sandals.”

While John understood himself as Jesus’ warm-up act, some of John’s disciples, even after John’s death, had a hard time transferring their allegiance to Jesus. Compared to John, Jesus seemed to them just a pale imitation. Jesus certainly was not as tough on sinners as John was. John kept separate from the evils of society, but Jesus was much too worldly. John was an ascetic – he ate locusts and honey and stayed away from wine, but it seemed like every time you turned around, Jesus was at a party. 

Some of John’s followers continued as a separate community long after he was gone. In fact, there is yet today a small group called the Mandeans who see themselves as the continuing community of followers of John the Baptist. It obviously wasn’t easy for all of John’s followers to become followers of Jesus. 

And even when many of John’s disciples did follow Jesus, even after John was long gone, they were not all necessarily following Jesus so much as they were following that part of Jesus that reminded them of John. “Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Some say you are John the Baptist,” they answered. “They say that John’s spirit is in you – when they look at you, they see John.” 

Others looked at Jesus and saw other things. Some saw in him Elijah, a great prophet. Others looked at Jesus and saw a charismatic leader who would overthrow the Romans and bring glory to Jerusalem. It wasn’t just John the Baptist; people saw Jesus through a lot of different filters, a lot of different lenses. 

Now this may all seem a bit remote for us, a mildly interesting Bible lesson perhaps. But this is not just history. This is where we are today. We still see Jesus through various filters. 

Consider Christian survivalists who stockpile food and weapons, so that when disaster comes, they’ll have all they need for themselves -- and all the weapons they need to keep others from getting any of it. How can these folks think that this is what following Jesus is all about? It’s simple. Jesus’ actions and teachings that may run counter to their positions get filtered out. They only hear what they agree with. 

The Ku Klux Klan sees itself as a Christian organization, “bringing a message of hope and deliverance to white Christian America.” Other white Christian nationalists would have similar views. How could they possibly identify themselves as following the way of Jesus? They have a very big filter. 

These may be extreme examples, but before we get too smug, we need to acknowledge that we all see Jesus through filters. The way we see Jesus is colored by our experience and our cultural situation and by what we expect to see. Think of all the paintings of Jesus as a blue-eyed Scandinavian. Historian Stephen Prothero wrote a book called American Jesus, tracing various ways Jesus has been remade in our image in our culture. A cold, severe Puritan Jesus; a kind of effeminate Sweet Savior Jesus seen in a lot of 19th century hymns, a more manly, masculine Jesus of the early 20th century, a countercultural hippie type Jesus, and so forth. 

We see most everything through a certain lens. Paul understood this when he wrote that we “see through a glass dimly.” We don’t see everything. We don’t see clearly. At the very least, we need to have some measure of humility, understanding that we don’t have all the truth or all the answers. 

To varying degrees, Jesus’ life and message gets filtered for all of us. This is one reason we need to continue go back to the scriptures. We need to hear Jesus’ words and see Jesus’ actions again and again, because it is so easy to filter out what we don’t want to hear or don’t expect to see. Simply reading the scriptures is no guarantee that we will see Jesus clearly, but it surely improves our odds. 

Dan Kimball wrote a book a few years back called They Like Jesus But Not The Church. He was writing about millennials. His experience was that millennials are generally very positive about Jesus but by and large negative about the church. In focus groups and interviews, individuals in this age group were asked about their attitudes. Now Kimball himself is fairly conservative, but he is very open about the problems facing the church and the way emerging generations view the church. Common perceptions he found included:
  • The church is mainly concerned about power
  • The church is judgmental, negative, and political
  • The church oppresses women
  • The church is homophobic
  • The church arrogantly thinks all other religions are wrong
  • The church is made up of fundamentalists who take the Bible literally
As it relates to our conversation this morning - about the way Jesus gets filtered - Kimball essentially is saying that a lot of people think the church is presenting Jesus through filters – filters of judgmental attitudes and politics and privilege and power. 

Are all churches like this? Of course not. Is there truth in what Kimball is saying? Of course. And whether any of this is accurate or not, these are perceptions that a lot of people have, and that is something that we have to face up to. But it is interesting that people who would not necessarily self-identify as Christian say that the church is presenting a Jesus that is heavily filtered. 

On the other hand, Kimball found that almost everyone interviewed really liked Jesus. Of course, they were largely viewing Jesus through a mostly popular culture kind of filter, but many of those interviewed had read the Bible and given this a lot of thought. We all have filters, and sometimes these are necessary. But when it comes to Jesus, it is important to see Jesus as, as much as we can, as he really is.

On this first Sunday of the year, we have read the very first words of Mark - the very first gospel written. And right off the bat, those who may have been seeing Jesus through the filter of John the Baptist have their eyes opened. Jesus is the one who is greater than John, yet he identifies with John’s movement and ministry. And then as he comes out of the water the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends like a dove and the voice comes from heaven, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
And as Jesus is baptized in the waters of the Jordan, we too have our eyes opened, and we begin to see Jesus more clearly. 

That’s what baptism can do. It tells us who we are. It helps to remove some of the filters we may have about Jesus – and about ourselves. In our own baptism, we are reminded that each of us is a beloved child of God. And we continue down a path of seeing and following Jesus – who is not only greater than John, but greater than our limited vision. As we read through Mark, or at least a good portion of Mark between now and Easter, the goal is to see again, and maybe see anew, who Jesus is.

We can see Jesus through the filter of what we believe is possible and practical and reasonable. But John says, Jesus is far greater, far more powerful than you can imagine.
In the old Wild West, a stranger arriving in town went to the saloon, which he immediately noticed was full of the toughest and meanest looking cowboys he’d ever seen. Tough and fearless himself, he strode in among them, hoisted himself up onto a barstool, and ordered a drink. 

He had hardly had time to take his first sip, however, when a man burst through the saloon doors, obviously in a panic. “Big Red is coming to town!!” he yelled. “Big Red is coming to town!!” On hearing this, the hard-bitten cowboys in the saloon were instantly terrified and ran screaming out the door. 

The stranger thought that was odd, but being genuinely fearless, he remained to finish his drink. About that time, he heard the saloon door swing open again, and turned to see a huge man, 7 feet tall, massively muscled, with long fiery red hair -- on his head, on his face, on his chest, on his arms -- and the meanest most evil face and eyes he had ever seen. And the stranger, who had never known fear, suddenly was very afraid. The floor of the saloon shook as this massive incarnation of evil walked up to the bar ordered a drink and threw it down his throat. 

Still shaking with fear, the formerly fearless stranger could think of only one thing: get on the good side of this monster. So he said to him, “Please allow me to buy you another drink.”

“Another drink??!!” the fellow said. “I ain’t got time for another drink. Ain’t you heard? -- Big Red’s coming to town!!!” 

“After me comes one who is greater,” said John the Baptist. “You think I’m great? Well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Amen.