St. Mark

let’s go crazy

Of all the things said about Jesus in the Bible, only once was his mental stability openly questioned.  When we look at what led up to that, his actions and statements, maybe there was good reason to wonder about it!

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Mark 3 begins with Jesus healing a man in the synagogue.  So far, so good.  However, he does this on the sabbath, and according to the law, the Torah, that constitutes work.  The authorities start plotting against him.

Jesus goes to the lakeside, and the crowd follows him.  He heals many people, and he commands the unclean spirits who would identify him to shut up.  Later, we see him going up the mountain and calling twelve of his followers to him, he gives them the name “apostle.”  The word means “one who is sent.”

We pick up the reading with verse 20, which has Jesus going home to Nazareth.  As fate would have it, he draws another crowd.  Word has gotten out about this Jesus.

So often when we read the scriptures, we fail to envision the scene.  We don’t hear the sounds; we don’t smell the smells.  When this throng of humanity comes flooding down the street, it draws some attention, to say the least.  Just when you think too many people are already there, here come some more!  The mob keeps pressing closer and closer.  More and more bodies keep getting crammed together.  (This might be a good time to imagine those smells.)

It gets so bad Jesus and his friends don’t even have enough room to enjoy a decent meal.

Meanwhile inside the house, Jesus’ family is frantic.  They call out to him, “Why are all these people here?”  “Why are you embarrassing us?”  “What will the neighbors think?”  Indeed, what will the neighbors think?  With his behavior, Jesus is drawing unwanted attention to his family.  Things might get out of hand, which the Romans no doubt would take as their cue to crash the party.  The Bible says, “they went out to restrain him.”  The Greek word (κρατεω, krateō) is a forceful one.  It means “to grab” or “to seize.”  They want to yank him inside.

Here’s where we get to the point of wondering if Jesus actually does have a screw loose.

Let me pause for a moment and take notice of the saying, “Every family has one.”  For example, that could be the uncouth uncle who makes inappropriate comments.  Maybe some of us fit into that category of “every family has one.”  Maybe we were (or still are) the rebel, the snob, the perfectionist, or something else altogether.  With Jesus, I imagine his family isn’t quite sure what to make of him.  That probably had been always the case.

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We learn what people are saying: “He has gone out of his mind” (v. 21).  The word is εξιστημι (existēmi), which means “to throw out of position,” “to be beside oneself,” “to displace.”  Jesus’ mind has been displaced; he has gone insane.  By the way, it’s possible his family is included in the folks saying that.

If they are, they might feel the need to protect Jesus.  Scribes from Jerusalem have heard some stories, and when they see what’s happening, they conclude, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (v. 22).

If this were simply their own opinion, it would be bad enough.  But it’s probably more.  These scribes have laid a legal charge.  When he is accused of demonic practices, he is accused of practicing magic, sorcery.  If that’s true, he would be breaking the law.  Deuteronomy 18, among other places, condemns one “who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead” (vv. 10-11).  This is a serious indictment.

They accuse him of trafficking with Beelzebul.  Who in the world is that?  The word comes from the Philistine god who was “lord of the heavenly dwelling.”  The Israelites had some fun and called him “Beelzebub,” which meant “lord of dung.”  There are a number of places in the Old Testament where a slight altering in spelling resulted in a change from the sublime to the ridiculous.  They turned something revered by their enemies into a laughing stock.

3 mk Actually, it sounds like something an elementary school student would have thought up: “lord of poop.”  And going along with the insects attracted to such a substance, he became known as “lord of the flies.”  However, over time, he morphed into something truly evil.

Very quickly, Jesus responds by saying if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?  It would surely fall.  How could that possibly describe Jesus?  Furthermore, to rob a strong man’s house, he has to be bound.  Jesus is indirectly saying he is stronger than Satan.

He has one more thing to say to the scribes and the people packed together.  This has caused no end of consternation and confusion down through the ages.  I will quote it at length: “‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (vv. 28-30).

People will be forgiven their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.  I think we understand the “sins” part, but what about the “blasphemies”?  Can we recognize blasphemy as an insult or curse against God or that which is holy?  Sorry folks, I will not give you an example!  That last word, “utter,” is key.  A blasphemy which is spoken, or even written, can be forgiven.

But what about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?  It doesn’t seem like we’re dealing with something uttered, something said.  After all, it is “an eternal sin.”  It can never be forgiven.  What could it possibly be?

Presbyterian minister James Ayers has some helpful comments.  “Here is the rope to pull you out of the quicksand; the rope holds no grudge if you reject it, but you cannot be rescued without it.  Here are the paramedics to extricate you from the wreck in which you are trapped; if you shout curses and slap their hands away, you will be unable to escape on your own.  They will not be offended, but will think you must be in shock and will go on trying to rescue you.”[1]

It seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an action, not an utterance.  Perhaps we could say it is a lack of action, an inaction.  It is a refusal; it is indeed a rejection.  Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a continual turning away from the liberty, from the salvation, conveyed by the Spirit.  That’s why it is eternal.  It’s a never-ending state of freely chosen slavery.  At some point, slavery simply takes control.

For the boys accusing Jesus, their slavery has them truly believing that something holy is actually evil.

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Here’s a word of comfort: if you are concerned—if you wonder—about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then you haven’t committed it!

Just as he began the passage with Jesus’ family, Mark ends it on the same note.  They decide to come outside and send someone to go fetch him.  They tell Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you” (v. 32).  He says something rather unexpected.  He doesn’t say, “Tell them to hold on.  I’ll be there soon.”  Jesus doesn’t want to assure them that he’ll be fine.  Don’t worry.

Rather, he redefines, he reimagines, he expands, the definition of family.  “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” (vv. 33-34).

Jesus’ family wants him to come home.  He has found a new home.  This speaks to those who have taken a decisive step on the spiritual path.  It’s not necessarily the case their old home was bad.  Perhaps it was wonderful.  But they have found a new truth, a better truth.

Those who have had a dramatic, or sudden, conversion experience probably can relate to this.  However, it’s not necessary to point to a particular moment in time to see oneself pictured here.  Many of you have been in the church your entire life.  It might be you look back and think, “Yes, that’s when it really clicked for me.”

There has been that sense of repentance, of μετανοια (metanoia), literally a “change of mind,” a revolution of mind, leading to a change of path, a turning around.

Having said that stuff about family, I quickly add that those who would manipulate others love this scripture.  We can think of cults and churches with cult-like behavior.  Followers are told, “We’ll do the thinking for you.  Welcome to the family!”  That isn’t the freedom of the gospel, the good news; it’s the slavery of the bad news.

I have a quick story to tell.  I’ll leave out some pertinent details to speed things along.  A few days after arriving at seminary in Philadelphia, I decided to go for a walk and explore the area.  I came upon a group having a car wash.  It turned out to be a church group, and they invited me to worship.  I went for a couple of weeks, but decided it wasn’t for me.

One night before I decided to leave, we were at somebody’s house and having a Bible study.  It was the strangest one I ever attended.  I was literally in the middle of a circle; people were sitting on chairs and couches around me.  They kept directing questions to me—no one else—about what it meant to be a disciple.  I was talking about following Jesus, etc., etc.  At some point, I decided to have some fun with them; I asked, “Am I giving the right answers?”

5 mkThere was a really creepy family vibe to that bunch.  (Though to be sure, not quite like the Manson family!)

A couple of weeks after that, two guys showed up one night at my seminary room.  I had met one of them; the other one I had never seen before.  This was at 11:00.  They said they were wondering what happened to me.  I said I had found another church.  (It was the Presbyterian Church across the street from the school.)  The one I had previously met looked around the room and said, “Just because you’re in seminary doesn’t mean you’re a disciple.”  I replied, “I think you guys are a cult.”  They took off, and I never saw them again.

If you hadn’t figured this out already, their definition of disciple was joining their creepy family-like church.

Jesus gave this response to those asking about his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (v. 35).  Jesus never employed mind games.  He didn’t coerce people.  In fact, when someone decided they weren’t ready to commit, he sent them on their way.

One thing I find interesting about Mark when talking about Jesus’ family is that he doesn’t mention Mary.  I imagine if there were one person in the family who understood Jesus, it would be his mother.  Still, it’s also likely at times he was a puzzle even to her.

Whatever the case, it’s okay to be puzzled.  We’re not expected to understand it all at once.  Actually, we’re not expected to ever understand it all.  There is room for all in the family of Jesus.  “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  If you love God, I’m with you.

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["Embraced" by Banu Moore]

Call me crazy, but I believe Jesus says to me there’s room for the creepy family crew.  There’s room for those who disagree with me politically…  who disagree with me theologically…  those who would shame and exclude me…  those I don’t like…  those who don’t like me…  those who love onions…  Jesus welcomes you and me into his family!

Call me crazy, but I believe there’s room for all of us.

 

[1] James Ayers, “Mark 3:20-35,” Interpretation 51:2 (Apr 1997), 182.


bonding in water

Have I ever mentioned that I like Star Trek?  I begin with Star Trek because at times I’ve told people it has served to illustrate a theological point!  Let me explain what I mean by describing a certain episode.[1]

One of the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Lieutenant Worf; he is a Klingon.  Klingons are a race, who in the original series in the ‘60s, were bitter enemies of humans.  However, by the time we get to this series, which aired in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the cold war was winding down.  And with art imitating reality, the Federation and the Klingon Empire had signed a peace treaty.

Anyway, Worf leads an away team to explore a planet.  One of the team members, an archaeologist, accidentally triggers a bomb from a war that ended centuries ago.  (It’s kind of like the way we use land mines.)  Sadly, the woman is killed, leaving a young son who already had lost his father.  The boy, Jeremy, is orphaned.

1 mkAs the mission leader, Worf feels responsible for the death of his mother.  Worf himself was orphaned at a young age.  He invites the boy to join him in a Klingon ceremony called the R’uustai, or in English, “the bonding.”  (It consists of lighting special candles and uttering certain Klingon words.)  In this way, their families will be joined, and each will become stronger.

Watching that show, I saw an example of ritual for the Klingons.  Ritual enables them to handle these difficult moments, these great transitions.  By inviting the young boy to join him in the R’uustai (as well as explaining its meaning), Worf helps Jeremy deal with his loss.  Jeremy is given a framework, a frame of reference.  It helps him begin the process of healing.

Ritual is important, not just for Klingons in a fictional universe, but also for humans in ours.  Weddings, funerals, graduations—these and many other occasions all involve ritual.  They involve us in words and deeds that carry meaning.  In these life transitions, we don’t have to start from scratch.  We have something to work with.

Today we celebrate a ritual, the sacrament of baptism.  It also involves a bonding, as well as a welcoming into a family.

Here’s something our Book of Order says about baptism (W-3.0402):

“The Reformed tradition understands Baptism to be a sign of God’s covenant…  Like circumcision, a sign of God’s gracious covenant with Israel, Baptism is a sign of God’s gracious covenant with the Church…  [Needless to say, circumcision only applies to males; baptism includes females!]  Baptism also represents God’s call to justice and righteousness, rolling down like a mighty stream, and the river of the water of life that flows from God’s throne.”

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The water in this font has a powerful lineage!

Speaking of power, our New Testament scripture is part of the reading for the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrate in January (Mk 1:9-11).

John the Baptist has told the people who have come to him, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (vv. 7-8).

“In those days,” as we’re told, Jesus comes along and presents himself to John.  Mark’s version is brief; we don’t see John’s hesitation to baptize Jesus that we see in Matthew’s telling.  We do, however, see the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending like a dove and landing on Jesus.  There is a celestial voice claiming him as “my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v.11).

This is the anointing of Jesus; the Spirit is poured upon him.

At my own baptism, nothing quite so spectacular happened, that is, visibly or audibly.  (At least, no one told me they heard voices coming from above!)  I can say I felt as if a weight had been lifted.  For a good bit of time, my mother told me I should be baptized.  At first, I resisted.  But when I made that public statement of joining with the people of God, by bonding in that ritual of water, everything changed.  I was a new person; I had embarked on a new life.

Here’s some more from our Book of Order: “Baptism is the bond of unity in Jesus Christ…  Both believers and their children are included in God’s covenant love.  The baptism of believers witnesses to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response.  The baptism of our young children witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith.  These two forms of witness are one and the same Sacrament.”

3 mk[Someone displaying the shirt he wore at his baptism.]

I was baptized as a believer, at age 21.  Our young candidate is being baptized as an infant.  We both receive the bond of unity, the bonding in water and Spirit, in Jesus Christ.  We both are welcomed into the family of God, as children of the covenant.

In a few moments when the water is sprinkled (or maybe poured!) on her, she won’t simply be a wet child—she will be the newest citizen in the kingdom of God.

 

[1] www.startrek.com/database_article/bonding-the


after the fire

It’s not every presbytery meeting that has a worship service that seems especially meaningful to me, which is understandable, since not every service can speak to everyone in the same way every time.  Still, I’ve been to some meetings when it felt like the people putting the service together were trying to be a little too cute.  Sometimes it’s just been boring.

Please understand, I’m not expecting to be entertained, but a worship service should help us into something of a sacred space.  Among those I have found most meaningful was one several years ago in a different presbytery which focused on giving thanks, on gratitude.

It wasn’t the theme so much that struck me, but there were other aspects, such as the hymns we sang.  One of them was, “Let All Things Now Living.”  There was also a time when symbolic gifts were brought forward, as signs of thankfulness.

Something that really stayed with me was how one of the pastors concluded the Prayers of the People.  After going through the various praises and intercessions, he finished with this: “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves,” and then he paused.  I was mentally finishing the sentence with something like, “no matter how proud we might be” or “no matter how startling it might be.”

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But I was wrong.  What he said was, “Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.”  No matter how beautiful it might be.  You know, I almost wished that he had concluded on one of those more negative notes—like something I’d been anticipating.  Maybe no one here feels the way I do about it, but sometimes it seems like being reminded of our failings, of our shortfalls, can in a strange way, actually feel better than being told how creative and radiant we are.

It can feel better because, even though this really isn’t true, it seems to give us an excuse for not being more than what we are.  It’s a convenient cop-out.  But if we’re reminded that, in Christ, there are no limits—if we say with the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”—then we’re left with the question: What will we do about it?

Some people in our scripture readings today have that question to answer.  In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, the glory of God is revealed.  Being chosen for such an intimate encounter would no doubt dramatically change one’s outlook on everything.  After such an experience, nothing is ever the same again.

In Exodus 24, Moses and a group of the leaders of Israel are summoned by God to Mt. Sinai.  Words fail to describe what they see.  “Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness” (v. 10).  And they are convinced that it is God they see.  The next verse tells us that “God did not lay his hand” on them; God did not strike them.  They would have expected death.  Everyone knows you cannot see God and live to tell about it!

Moses, of course, is the one who is summoned even farther.  He goes up to the top of Sinai where, as the scripture says, he spends “forty days and forty nights” in the presence of God (v. 18).  The result of all this enlightenment is that Moses brings God’s law to the people.

In our Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration of Jesus, it’s Peter, James, and John who have an intimate encounter with the glory of God.  In their case, it’s their teacher and friend through whom they see that divine radiance.  Jesus reveals to this privileged trio the true nature of his being.

How does this happen?  People of many different cultures have traveled to the tops of mountains to meet their gods.  The ancient Greeks believed that Mt. Olympus was the home of their gods.  The indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, and America have had mountains of their own.  Elsewhere in Exodus, we see Moses’ face shining when he comes down from Sinai (34:29).  Something similar happens to Peter and his friends.  We’re told that Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Mt 17:2).

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The Son shines like the sun.

Peter seems oblivious to all of this.  He babbles something about building three shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  Peter wants to stay on the mountain, literally and metaphorically.  He wants to enshrine this experience.  But what happens?  We’re told “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’”  The heavenly voice terrifies them, but Jesus calms their fears.

He leads Peter, James, and John back down the mountain.  He takes them back to their lives in the world.  And just so they know, they’re not even to talk about what happened up on the mountain.

Isn’t that how the transfiguration story is usually explained, at least regarding Peter?  Poor, stumbling Peter.  Poor, stumbling thick-headed Peter.  He prattles on about putting up tents, but he’s missing the whole point of he and his friends being there.  Lending support to this view are the versions in Mark and Luke about his not knowing what in the world he’s talking about (Mk 9:6, Lk 9:33).

The lesson we’re to learn is to not be like Peter.  Remember that we can’t always have those mountain top experiences.  And just like Peter, we should also remember that Jesus understands and builds his church with imperfect disciples like us.  We, like Peter, are destined for greater things.

Actually, that’s not such a bad thing to take from this story.  But is that all there is to it?

Methodist pastor Jason Micheli offers some thoughts.[1]  He admits he also has simply focused on the lesson I just mentioned.  There is a mistake, however, in concentrating on Peter and his apparent failures.  Why doesn’t Jesus correct him?  If Peter gets it so wrong, why doesn’t Jesus set him straight?

“In fact,” Micheli reminds us, “here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him.  This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.”  Maybe Peter isn’t quite as dull and obtuse as we might make him out to be.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God.  This is where the good news is to be found.”

God became human.  God entered into our matter, as frail and fragile as it is.

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Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of the Lord.  It is the final Sunday before Lent.  We celebrate the fire of Transfiguration.  What happens after the fire?  What is left after the fire?  Are not ashes left over?  Appropriately enough, Ash Wednesday occurs this week.

A couple of weeks ago, Banu and I returned from study leave in Tennessee.  (We stayed with my mom, who was pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised at how friendly and loving Ronan is.)

The feature of our trip was a visit to Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  It was named for the place in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with the angel, and his name is changed to Israel, which means “one who strives with God” (Gn 32:22-32).  The center is in Cheatham County, which is an interesting county.  It’s almost hidden.  It’s a short drive from Nashville, and then you’re in hilly country; you might not know there’s a major metro area nearby.  The retreat center was located there partly with that in mind.

When we visited, we were cognizant of the soon-approaching Lenten season.  The day of our visit was an overcast one, punctuated by intermittent drizzle.  I won’t speak for Banu, but I think we both enjoyed the atmosphere—with the effects on body, mind, and spirit.  It was soul-enriching.  I was once again reminded of what retreat is meant to be.  We weren’t exactly on a mountain like Sinai or the mount of Transfiguration, but we were indeed on a ridge high above the Cumberland River.

At one point, I was reflecting and writing in my journal images that came to me.

“Penuel Ridge Retreat Center.  Gray day.  Sacred gloominess.  Conversation with the director.  Prosaic, yet brimming with possibility.  Traffic on the road fronting the property.  Mud.  Fire failing in the Duraflame-logged fireplace.  Water drops.  Banu behind me at the desk, paper shifting, rustling.

“My own thoughts, wondering how I can use this—how to put it into a sermon or a blog post.  (Of course.)”  That last bit is something of a confession of sin!  How can I use this, instead of simply letting it be?

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{scenery from Penuel Ridge, with a psychedelic touch}

As we think of the retreat house next door,[2] perhaps Transfiguration isn’t a bad image to use.  Transfiguration, a metamorphosis revealing the fire within, seems appropriate.  And yet, after the fire, we have the ashes.  The ashes, representing our mortality, remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return.

There is the busyness of being in a city (albeit a small city) along an often-busy thoroughfare.  It can be easy to miss the gift of retreat in the midst of all that.  That is a challenge for all of us—to see in the ordinary (especially an ordinary we’ve probably grown too used to) the fire within.  Our challenge is to claim the privilege of sacred space, there and here.

“Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ, Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes.  In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God.”

Help us to accept the truth about ourselves…no matter how beautiful it might be.

 

[1] www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/what-preachers-get-wrong-and-peter-gets-right-about-transfiguration

[2] Presbyterian Event and Retreat Center (108 South St., Auburn, NY 13021)


who do you think you are?

I want to begin with a question.  How many of you can think of someone from your past, maybe even early childhood, who for you is summed up by a certain image or incident?

1 mk{Is this fellow summed up by a single image?}

Let me give an example.  When I was in second grade, there was a kid in my class named Jon.  For some strange reason, he would turn his eyelids inside out.  The first time he did it, it scared me, and I started crying.  That was a mistake!  Once he saw that, he made a point of turning his eyelids inside out and then trying to get my attention.  I don’t recall crying anymore, but it still freaked me out.

And to this day, that’s the image I have of Jon.  He was the creepy kid who would turn his eyelids inside out.  Forever and ever, that is who he is!

It’s a common thing, really, to go from our memory and decide that we have them figured out.

In the gospel reading from Mark 6, Jesus goes back to his hometown and encounters something like this.  We’re told, “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.  They said, ‘Where did this man get all this?  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’  And they took offense at him” (vv. 2-3).

Brian Stoffregen has said, “It is essentially their knowledge of Jesus that keeps them from really knowing and benefiting from [him].  Could this be a warning to all people who think that they know Jesus, but, in fact, may misunderstand and reject the real Jesus?”[1]

I think there’s more truth in this than we would like to admit.  We can possess plenty of Jesus “trinkets.”  We can be acquainted with Jesus.  In fact, we can know quite a bit about Jesus…without knowing Jesus.

2 mkThe people in Jesus’ hometown thought they knew him.  They remember when he was “knee high to a grasshopper”!  And this recent behavior has them confused.  Isn’t he the carpenter?  What’s he doing acting like a rabbi?  Who does he think he is?

The Greek word translated as “carpenter” is τεκτων (tektōn), but it has more than one meaning.  It can refer to any “artisan” or “craftsman.”  It can even mean “artist,” like a sculptor.  So we’re not entirely sure that Jesus was a carpenter, but it’s a pretty safe bet.

The point is, in the eyes of the local folks, he wasn’t staying in his place.  Jesus wasn’t sticking to what they always thought he would—or should—be!  “And they took offense at him.”  The word is σκανδαλιζω (skandalizō), which means they were scandalized by him.  But that’s putting it mildly.

In chapter 4 of his gospel, Luke does better than Mark in capturing anger at Jesus: “When they heard [him], all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (v. 28).  They go ballistic.  They’re so mad that they want to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he slips away before they can execute their plan (and him)!

Something else to notice is that Jesus is called “the son of Mary.”  In their culture, men carry the names of their fathers, such as “James son of Zebedee.”  Referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” is a not-so-veiled way of saying that he is illegitimate.  We see a suggestion of it again in John 8:41.

It’s been noted that “the refusal—or inability—of Jesus’ neighbors to accept his status confirms what [we’ve seen so] far: the world’s standards of judgment appear to run headlong into God’s ways.  Jesus does not measure up.”[2]

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It’s not like Jesus is deliberately being stubborn.  He’s not doing things simply for shock value.  But he recognizes the unjust nature of so many of his culture’s traditions.  And that often includes the role of the family.  Jesus sees that “there is a higher priority than family power and obligation.”  William Loader has suggested, “Family power, meant to empower one to independent adulthood, frequently aborts the process, and becomes a source of oppression.”[3]

This surely is no surprise to any of you.  We all know people, and families, who have squashed the dreams and gifts of one of their own.  This can be done actively:  through ridicule or even abuse.  Or it can be done passively: through neglect or lack of encouragement.  Some of you might have firsthand experience with this.

Jesus has a very different take on family values.  In Mark 3, he asks, “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 33-35).

Our Lord models for us a new way of being a family.  (And I would say, a better way of being a family.)  It’s been said, “That may well mean leaving the natural family behind, a revolutionary thought—and a healthy one.”[4]  That’s what the church should be: a family at a deeper and more profound level than those tied to us by blood.  (But then, perhaps it’s the blood of Christ which ties us together!)

Verses 4 to 6 tell us that “Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.”  He was amazed, astonished, dumbfounded.

Their minds are already made up about him.  They prefer the picture they have in their heads, as opposed to the living Jesus.  That’s what they’re comfortable with.  They think they have him all figured out.  One of my favorite bands, King’s X, sang, “There is no room inside a box!”  That’s no place for Jesus—or for those who, in second grade, turned their eyelids inside out!

The late Bruce Prewer commented, “The low expectations from within one’s locality, not only underrate the gifts and possibilities of a ‘local,’ but can also actively inhibit the development of such gifts. Numerous people have been grossly restricted by the low expectations of those around them. Many have to go elsewhere to be truly be themselves.

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“As I see it, fostering low expectations is one of the devil’s most canny stratagems.”  Who do you think you are?

People with “low expectations can inhibit or constrict your enlarging identity in Christ.  They rarely notice your developing gifts, or give you gracious affirmation in your accomplishments.”[5]  They’re the ones who are sure to pour cold water on the things that make for life—the things that foster joy and hope.  Although, I suppose we all do that, at least on occasion.  But there are people who seem to be expert at it.

Sometimes, low expectations appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  They come to us cloaked as otherwise good and even noble considerations.  How many genuine promptings from God (not personal agendas) get buried amid concerns that we’ve never done it that way before…or we can’t afford it…or we should assign that to a committee and let them study it for the next few months?

“Be lofty in your expectations for yourselves and for other Christians, and be generous with yourself and with them when you stumble.  A stumble does not characterize your true future, but Jesus Christ does.”[6]

If it feels like I’m saying, “do more,” that’s not it.  It’s not enough to simply be busy.  Instead, what does God ask?  Mark tells us about the instructions Jesus gives to his disciples.  I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 12: “They preached with joyful urgency that life can be radically different.”  That’s his take on the message of repentance.

As I move towards my conclusion, I want to share with you something attributed to Nelson Mandela.  It actually appears in a work by Marianne Williamson.  Still, it sounds like something Mandela would have quoted!

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“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,” she writes.  “Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It is not in just some of us; it is in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[7]

So… who are you to tell someone that Jesus loves them?  Who are you to feed the hungry?  Who are you to speak against torture?  Who are you to visit the sick and those in jail?  Who are you to bring hope to the hopeless?  Who are you to tell people that their sin has been forgiven?  Who do you think you are?

You are a child of God, and so am I.

 

[1] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[2] www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark6x1.htm

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkPentecost7Ord14.html

[5] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[6] www.bruceprewer.com/DocB/BSUNDAY14.htm

[7] marianne.com/a-return-to-love


building the earth

I want to begin by talking about mammals.  “The story of mammals is one of self-destruction.  They first arose roughly 200 million years ago, and after eons spent scurrying in the shadow of the dinosaurs, they finally cut loose and evolved into a breathtaking variety of shapes and sizes, including the largest creatures to ever exist.  And after all that, it took barely 100,000 years for one relatively young member of the group—us—to bring everything crashing down.”[1]

That’s how Ed Yong’s article in last month’s The Atlantic begins.  From the time of the early proto-humans, we have hunted, invaded habitat, and polluted the environment.  One key point in the article is how we have affected evolutionary history.  Taking into account the mammals we’ve eradicated, and those nearing extinction, it is estimated it would take 3 to 7 million years of evolution for their replacement.  Evolution is very slow; destruction is pretty quick!

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I jokingly made a comment about the article when I posted it on Facebook.  I said, “If human beings vanished from the face of the earth, it would a good thing for our fellow animals!”

Fortunately, there’s one group doing their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

There are some folks in what’s known as the Quiverfull movement.  In a nutshell, they don’t believe in contraception.  Some are even opposed to the rhythm method.  On the contrary, they believe God wants us to procreate as much as possible.  It’s like the TV show from a few years ago, 19 and Counting.

So why do I mention the Quiverfull movement and their determination to propagate the species?  It just so happens that their inspiration is Psalm 127.  Speaking of children, in particular sons, we read, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.  Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (vv. 4-5).  Thus the name!  This is taken as, if not exactly a command from God, then at least a very firm recommendation.

Whether or not you agree with the Quiverfull philosophy, I would say their talk of arrows misses the mark.

2 psVerse 1 establishes the context of the psalm; it sets the stage.  “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”

Backing up for just a moment, Psalm 127 is part of a group of psalms called “The Songs of Ascents.”  They run from Psalm 120 to 134.  It’s commonly thought these were songs sung by pilgrims making their way up to Jerusalem.  (I’ve never been to Jerusalem, but those who have can probably attest to the higher elevation the city occupies—thus the idea of “ascent.”)

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

The dearly-departed Eugene Peterson, author of the paraphrase of the Bible, The Message (and about a thousand other books), in 1980 wrote A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.  It deals with the Songs of Ascents.  Perhaps those who are familiar with Peterson’s work can agree with me that, whatever he wrote, he spoke with the heart and soul of a poet.

Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

In his chapter on Psalm 127, he begins with his own take on building and guarding.  He says, “The greatest work project of the ancient world is a story of disaster.  The unexcelled organization and enormous energy that were concentrated in building the Tower of Babel resulted in such shattered community and garbled communication that civilization is still trying to recover.  Effort, even if the effort is religious (perhaps especially when the effort is religious), does not in itself justify anything.”[2]

The story in Genesis 11 is one of frantic anxiety.  It’s one of human desperation and despair.  It’s one of human arrogance and hubris.  “The whole world” as the story goes, said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (vv. 1, 4).  They thought their technology would save them.  They wanted to build a city; they wanted to guard their culture from ruin.

That’s not the only time we humans have done that.  Today is the 100th anniversary of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  In 1918, the armistice was signed, ceasing the fighting of what came to be called World War 1.  It was, as our call to worship puts it, the “day when the guns once fell silent.”

3 psHuman knowledge and technology during the late nineteenth century had reached new heights.  However, as it was sadly discovered, knowledge and wisdom often progress at different rates.  The so-called “civilized” nations were plunged into what Harry Emerson Fosdick called “the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed.”[3]

This was yet another time of human hubris, when we engaged in “the war to end all wars.”  In the midst of it, he quoted Walter Rauschenbusch, “O God, we pray Thee for those who come after us, for our children, and the children of our friends, and for all the young lives that are marching up from the gates of birth…  We remember with a pang that these will live in the world we are making for them…  We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it…

“Grant us grace to leave the earth fairer than we found it; to build upon it cities of God in which the cry of needless pain shall cease; and to put the yoke of Christ upon our business life that it may serve and not destroy.”[4]

He takes note of our building cities, “building the house,” building the earth, so to speak, but it must have the blessing of God.  When we build the earth while ignoring God, it leaves a horrible legacy to our children, those young ones we looked at earlier.  “We are poisoning the air of our land by our lies and our uncleanness, and they will breathe it.”

We can knock ourselves out in doing this building.  Verse 2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.”  “In vain”: that’s the third time we’ve heard that!  So many are sleep-deprived, working anxiously.  I don’t imagine this is a big surprise, but America is the most sleep-deprived nation in the world—Japan is a close second.  Roughly one-third of us get less than 7 hours of sleep each night.  It takes its toll on our health.

When I was a kid, my parents used to listen to country music.  I was never a fan.  But I remember a song by Hoyt Axton: “Boney Fingers.”  Here’s the chorus: “Work your fingers to the bone, What do you get? / Boney fingers, boney fingers.”  And we lose that sleep I was just talking about.

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Remember the last line of verse 2: “he gives sleep to his beloved.”  There’s an alternate reading which says, “he provides for his beloved during sleep.”

With all this talk of sleep, some might say, “Why bother with work—and certainly working hard?”  God will take care of it.  However, the psalm isn’t advocating being lazy.  St. Paul had an argument with some of the Thessalonians, complaining that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (3:11).

And so we come to verse 3.  “Sons [children] are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”  Children are a gift from God.  They are created without working our fingers to the bone.  Building the house isn’t simply about a physical structure.  Building the house also means family, lineage.  For example, the house of David figures greatly in the Old Testament.

Rickie Dale Moore says, “How deeply the world view of this psalm makes this connection can be seen in the fact that the Hebrew words for ‘build’ (banah), ‘house’ (bayith), ‘daughters’ (banoth), and ‘sons’ (banim), all come from the same Hebrew root (bnh).”[5]

This brings us to the final line of the psalm.  We already saw the first part of verse 5: “Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (that is, sons).  Here’s how it ends: “He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”  “The gate” represents a place where justice is meted out, a tribunal.  If someone has many sons to back him up—well, let’s say there’s a better chance of being treated fairly!

Our psalm begins with the “threat of a cursed life of vanity.”  By the time we get to the end, there’s “the promise of a blessed life.”  Our friend Rickie Dale says, “The blessed life, here, finally consists in nothing other than the plenitude of one’s children, and what’s more, the blessedness is secured and protected by nothing other than the children themselves!”[6]

That might sound like someone without children is cursed.  (If so, then my wife and I are in that category!)  Translating that into the understanding most of us share, it doesn’t have to be our own children.  It’s the children of our society, the children of our world.

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There was a movie starring Clive Owen called Children of Men.  It’s set about twenty years into the future.  For some unknown reason, women all over the planet have become infertile; nobody’s having babies.  The youngest person in the world is 18 years old.  A notable line of one of the characters goes, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.  Very odd, what happens in a world without children’s voices.”  Eventually, a young woman does get pregnant, so all is not lost!

In a very real way, it is the hope of children that saves us.  They are how we build the house; they are how we build the earth.  So, to rephrase as Moore does, “Unless the Lord builds the world; Then for its builders, all is vanity.”[7]

What goes into building the house?  What goes into building our culture, building our lives?

In Mark 12:38-44, the high and mighty are giving donations in a prideful way.  It’s a reaffirmation of the respect they believe they deserve.  They have plenty of money in the bank; their investments have paid off well.  The poor widow isn’t trying to impress anyone.  She can’t impress anyone.  She gives—not for show—but from a heart of love.  She gives her all, and Jesus commends her to his disciples.

We are called to build with love.  We are called to build the earth with love.  Part of that means not wiping out hundreds of thousands and even millions of years of evolution of our companions—whether they stride, soar, or swim.

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Unless the Lord builds…  Unless the Lord guards…

We are called, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone, to be joined together—to be built—into a holy temple in the Lord (Ep 2:20-21).

 

[1] www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/mammals-will-need-millions-years-recover-us/573031

[2] Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 20th anniversary ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 105.

[3] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York:  Association Press, 1917), vii.

[4] Fosdick, 60.

[5] Moore, Rickie Dale, “Futile Labor vs Fertile Labor: Observing the Sabbath in Psalm 127,” The Living Pulpit, (April-June) 1998: 24.

[6] Moore, 25.

[7] Moore, 25.


what do you want?

There was a question that I sometimes would be asked, and too many times, it really bugged me.  It’s a simple question, and I’m using it as my sermon title.  “What do you want?”  That sounds easy enough.

I guess it started when I was in high school.  Maybe some of you can relate to this.  Some of my classmates would say, “I’ll go to college (some would have a particular one that they were dead set on), and I will major in whatever.  That will set me up for this-or-that career—or I’ll have a certain job waiting—and this is how my life will go.”  It was all mapped out.

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Ben Stiller in deep thought as Derek Zoolander

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not opposed to setting goals!  I’m not opposed to actually planning things!  But with the way they were describing it, it felt like they were removing all the mystery from life.  They were removing the fun.  Sometimes I would wonder, “What’s wrong with me?  Why don’t I feel the need to chart everything so meticulously?”

When I got to college, I had a certain roommate for two years.  He was a really cool guy.  His major was Accounting, and he absolutely hated it.  Going outdoors—working outdoors—was what he really loved.  Like so many other people, his theory was that you go to college to get a job.  (That’s how you answer the question, “But what can you do with such-and-such a major?”  That one especially gets posed to liberal arts majors.)

I was way on the other side of the spectrum.  For me, college was about exploring, learning about new things.

I was baptized when I was 21.  By then, I had already graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  I had lost interest in the directions that would take me, at least as a career.  As I became involved with the church, that question resurfaced: What do you want?  And like before, sometimes it really bugged me.

My first meaningful experience with church was the Assemblies of God.  I’m grateful for it.  For someone like me, who lived too much in his head, I needed that really heartfelt experience of the faith.

At the same time, when there is so much emphasis placed on following the leading of the Holy Spirit (which can be a frustratingly vague proposition), sometimes other things get overlooked.  That could include stuff like familiarity with the scriptures, the advice of wise people in the church, and the desires and interests God puts within us.  (Although I suppose all of that goes along with the leading of the Spirit!)

I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college in Florida.  After graduation, I was back to that question.  What do you want?  I rephrased it as, “What should I do?”  I wanted God to give me an absolutely clear direction.  This was a matter of much prayer.  In a way, I wanted God to remove the mystery and fun that I mentioned earlier in connection with my classmates.

So, while waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration, I went back to the job I had during my breaks from college: McDonald’s.  I worked there for quite a while until I finally decided to go to seminary.  But on more than one occasion, when I couldn’t answer the question “What do you want?” I felt like there must be something wrong with me.  And bringing in the perspective of faith, maybe I was ignoring the Holy Spirit!

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Speaking of the perspective of faith, that brings us to our story in Mark’s gospel: the healing of blind Bartimaeus.  (And I will get back to the question, “What do you want.”)

First of all, in case you’ve never noticed this, Mark is the gospel writer who is the least likely to go into great detail.  He just races along.  Mark uses the Greek word for “immediately” (ευθυς, euthus) more than Matthew, Luke, and John put together.  And his gospel is the shortest.

So if you’re binging on caffeine, or sucking down a Red Bull, this might be the gospel to read!

Look at the way our story begins in verse 46.  Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho.  We have no idea what they do there.  The next thing we hear—they’re already leaving town, and they do so with “a large crowd.”  That’s when they encounter “a blind beggar [who’s] sitting by the roadside.”

We’re told that his name is “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.”  That’s actually a repetition.  In Aramaic (which was the language they spoke), the word for “son” is “bar.”  So it’s “son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus.”  There is some confusion.  It looks like he’s anonymous; maybe that’s one way of saying he’s a nobody.  As a blind beggar, it’s no doubt the way he’s been treated.

And yet, we often see these reversals in the Bible.  Scripture is filled with subversive, counter-cultural ideas.  The word “Timaeus” (τιμαιος) means “honorable” or “esteemed one.”  The name Timaeus refers to a “worthy one.”  You know, this blind beggar might be somebody after all!

Whatever the case, he doesn’t let the crowd keep him quiet once he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is on the way.  Maybe he senses that Jesus is a kindred spirit.  Nazareth is not exactly the most cosmopolitan of places.  There were plenty of people who thought of Jesus as a nobody!

Bartimaeus doesn’t care.  In fact, he is calling out to him, loudly shouting, “Son of David!”  We’re told that some people “sternly ordered him to be quiet” (v. 48).  Sternly ordered—rebuked—the recipient of expletives.  I imagine the language hurled at this blind beggar, this nobody, is as crude as it is colorful.

Actually, shouting out “Son of David” would get you noticed.  “Son of David” is a messianic title.  It hearkens back to King David’s dynasty.  At the time, the messiah was expected to lead the Jewish nation to independence.  That would mean going against the Romans.  So Bartimaeus, stop shouting this dangerous stuff!  We really don’t need that kind of attention.

Eventually, Jesus appears before Bartimaeus, and he asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51).  What do you want?  It would seem to be obvious.  He’s blind!

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“Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus” by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861.

As Debie Thomas says, “But Jesus asks, anyway.  He doesn’t presume.  He doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to his blindness.  Instead, he honors the fullness and complexity of a real human being who likely has many desires, many longings, and many needs.  In asking the question, Jesus invites Bartimaeus into the honest self-reflection essential to growth and healing.”[1]

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus poses the same question to James and John.  They are looking for positions of power and prestige, sitting “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v. 37).  Bartimaeus has a very different answer.  “My teacher, let me see again” (v. 51).  Let me see.

I have a question.  What does it mean to see?  Aside from the obvious physical definition of seeing, what does it mean?

Certainly, we can think of seeing as understanding, of coming to a realization.  It’s that moment when the light comes on.

At a deeper level, prophets have sometimes been called “seers.”  That’s a challenge for all of us—to see beyond the outer appearances into the depths where the true nature of things is hidden with Christ in God.

Do we ever, as I mentioned before, think there’s something wrong with us if we don’t know what we want?  And again, getting more specific, do we ever blame ourselves if we can’t see—if we can’t understand something?  “Why didn’t I see that?”  If so, we should remind ourselves of something.

The crowd considered Bartimaeus unworthy.  What good is a blind beggar?  But Mark makes a point of naming him, even if there is, as I said, some confusion about it.  (Matthew and Luke in their gospels leave him nameless.)  Mark takes the extra step of granting him that dignity.  His name itself says that he is “worthy”; he is “valuable.”

Still, that worthiness, that value, is not something Bartimaeus worked for.  It was given to him.  The same is true with us.  The truest and deepest worthiness is not something we work for.  I say that, because that type of honor can be taken away.  We can mess up; we can fail to see something, and there it goes!  Rather, the truest and only real measure is the worthiness and esteem we receive from God.

Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus’ need, but he doesn’t presume.  He doesn’t patronize him.  He asks him the question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus enters into relationship with this son of Timaeus.  Far from saying, like some in the crowd, “Shut up, you dirty beggar,” he shows interest in him.

What do you want?

Ultimately, I would think, the answer is to be loved.  And it doesn’t matter if we are one of the beautiful people or if we have screwed up badly and made a wreck of our lives.  Really, that’s part of the human condition.  We make mistakes; we sin.  So often, we stumble in the darkness.  Maybe even today, some of us are experiencing our own kind of darkness.  We are blind beggars.

Again, we hear the question, “What do you want?”  We want—we need—the love of God.  The love of God is an intensity that we cannot imagine or conceive, blind beggars that we are.  But that is grace.  That is the gospel.  That is the good news.

Now here’s something that qualifies as a post script!

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This, of course, is Reformation Sunday.  Reformation Day falls on the 31st.  It marks the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted what amounted to an editorial, a letter to the editor, on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Years earlier, when he was a young man, there was an event that flows from my thoughts on, “What Do You Want?” and my expressed hope that the Lord would strike me with a lightning bolt of inspiration!

Martin had been studying law for a few weeks, and he went to visit his parents.  As the story goes, on the way back, he was surprised by a heavy thunderstorm.  Caught in an open field, he sought shelter under a tree.  A sudden lightning strike caused him to throw himself down onto the earth.  In mortal fear he prayed and vowed, “I will become a monk!”

He had toyed with the idea of being a monk for some time.  Did the lightning bolt help him decide “what do I want?”

Eventually, he left the monastery.  He proposed reforms to the Roman Catholic church which were rejected.  He never envisioned a church that would be named after him.  The forces he set in motion could be blamed on that thunderstorm!  The lightning bolt answered the question for him: “What do you want?”

May it not take a lightning bolt, but the fire (and the silence) of the Spirit to lead us down that path.

 

[1] www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1988-let-me-see-again


to know me is to love me

How many of you have ever played “truth or dare”?  (That might serve as a question for “truth”!)

Let’s first start with “dare.”  Depending on who you’re playing with, it might require setting some guidelines, such as not daring someone to do something illegal—well, at least not too illegal.  In addition, if members of the opposite sex are present, that also might require some guidelines!

Now, for “truth.”  When we played, anything was fair game.  Anything.  Someone might begin with “truth,” but after being forced to answer the question, from then on, the selection would be “dare.”  That might seem a little less risky.  You know, we don’t want to give out too much information.  Sometimes there’s a fear of exposure.  We don’t want a light shined on just anything!

There are other examples of not wanting to be known too well.

Sometimes it might involve a child, who upon discovering the door to the garage locked, decides to take a piece of wood and jam it into the lock, hoping the substitute key would do the trick.  It might involve the sister of the child being blamed for the misdeed and suffering the sanction of being spanked.  It might involve the guilty child finally coming clean well after the fact and suffering no retribution, since by that time it’s but a distant memory.  By then, it’s okay to be known too well.

1 ps 139
Beth LaNeel Turner

Of course, that doesn’t sum it all up, but there is the basic thought of being known to an uncomfortable level.

In Beth Tanner’s The Psalms for Today, she states, “A psalm is a whole thought, even if it is lengthy.”[1]  So if we go along with that, Psalm 139 would be no different.

In fact, we can see that whole thought in a nutshell right in verse 1.  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Period.  Another version says, “Lord, you have examined me and you know me” (Revised English Bible).  The Hebrew word (חׇקַר, chaqar) for “search” can also mean “investigate” or “explore.”  The psalmist is saying, “Lord, you’ve done a pretty thorough job in taking inventory of me.  I think it’s safe to say: you know me, warts and all!”  The rest of the psalm is taken up with unpacking, or laying out, that verse.

There isn’t any one way to divide up the poem, but I’ll lay it out in unequal sections.

The first eighteen verses look at being known by the Lord in different ways.  The next four verses take a decidedly different turn.  We are treated to a startling searching and knowing of a vile nature (to say the very least).  The final two verses serve to encapsulate all that has gone before.  The psalmist finally makes a request of God, a plea of protection.

I won’t go through these in exhaustive detail; I’ll deal with them in a selective fashion.  And of course, I don’t have the final word on this!

Verses 2 to 4 deal with thoughts and words.  The poet says to God, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.”  Even before speaking, “before a word is on my tongue,” Lord, you already know what I’m going to say! (vv. 2, 4).  There’s no point in playing the game, “Guess what number I’m thinking of.”

Verses 5 to 10 show the utter futility in trying to hide from the Lord: even if the psalmist “[takes] the wings of the morning and [settles] at the farthest limits of the sea” (v. 9).  If you remember the story of Jonah, the disobedient prophet, he was told to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent.  However, since Nineveh was an enemy of Israel, he wanted God to destroy them.  So he booked passage on a ship bound for Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean, basically, the end of the world.  But God found him anyway.

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Please understand, we don’t have to see the poet being upset that the Lord’s knowledge is everywhere!

Then we come to verses 11 and 12.  Not even the darkness provides cover.  I imagine we can see this in different ways.  The psalmist could either be grateful or grieved that “the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to [the Lord]” (v. 12).  We’re not sure about our writer’s intent; we need some light shed on the matter.  When we deny knowledge to someone, we indeed keep them in the dark.

Something these verses speak to is the matter of secrecy.  Secrets are tricky little boogers.  On the one hand, it’s definitely necessary to keep plenty of things secret.  Giving out too much information (like we saw earlier) can do tons of damage.  In addition, it can just be an annoyance.

On the other hand, secrets can be harmful, even deadly.  Secrets have a way of infiltrating themselves into systems: systems of family, of congregations, of the workplace, whatever.  There can be a dark secret, never exposed to the light, which can take up residence and thrive.  It can even pass from one generation to the next and continue down the line.

Still, darkness is not always bad.  Madeleine L’Engle wrote about this in her book The Irrational Season.  “When we deny our wholeness, when we repress part of ourselves, when we are afraid of our own darkness, then the dark turns against us, turns on us, becomes evil.  Just as the intellect when it is not informed by the heart becomes vicious, so the intuition, the subconscious, when it is forcibly held below the surface, becomes wild, and until we look at it and call it by name, our own name, it can devour us.”[2]

3 ps 139I’m reminded of Jesus in Mark 5 when he encountered a man possessed by unclean spirits.  Jesus asked for a name, and the reply was, “My name is Legion; for we are many” (v. 9).  Jesus rendered them powerless and the man was delivered from them.  They were no longer able to devour him.

Whatever dwells in the dark needs to be named.  It needs to be brought to light.  It needs to be “searched”; it needs to be “known.”  But it also needs to be searched and known by God.  If we’re doing this by ourselves, we can do a lot of damage!

Moving on, I said I wouldn’t go into great detail, so I’ll say about verses 13 to 16 that the psalmist is fascinated and celebrates being “wonderfully made” (v. 14).  Being known by the Lord to the very core of one’s being is an occasion for praise.  Verses 17 and 18 speak of the impossibility of fully grasping the mind of God.

And so, we come to verses 19 to 22, and all I can say is, “Here we go!”  The psalmist does an imitation of my dog when he shows his teeth.  At such times, he is not in a charitable mood.  It’s time for growling, much like the language we hear our friend using.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me” (v. 19).  What on earth has happened to this psalm?  We’ve gone from acknowledging and celebrating the all-knowing and ever-present God to a call for vengeance to be exacted.

Eric Peels, Old Testament professor in the Netherlands, talks about it.  “Among the offensive passages from the Old Testament with prayers for the downfall of the adversaries [these verses are] unique.  Nowhere else is the hatred against enemies expressed so directly and wholeheartedly…  If Psalm 139 had ended with…verse 18 it would have been one of the most beautiful songs in the Book of Psalms.”[3]

(And just in case you were wondering, the lectionary reading does indeed end at verse 18!)

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So what do we make of it?  What do we make of the abrupt transition to “I hate them with perfect hatred”? (v. 22).  In Hebrew, it’s literally “with complete hatred I hate them.”  Our friend Eric continues, “By hating God’s enemies the poet relates to God’s own hatred of the wicked and his curse on them.  By completely taking a stand for God the poet chooses a world of blessing and goodness, of truth and justice.”[4]

God’s enemies are my enemies.  True enough, but this isn’t about any actual feelings of fury, either on God’s or the psalmist’s part.  It’s about choosing a life of integrity or iniquity.

Having said that, there’s the danger of reversing the order into “my enemies are God’s enemies.”  (But that never happens, does it?)

So now we come to the end of the psalm.  Verses 23 and 24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  We’re back to “search me” and “know me,” but now it’s a request; it’s a plea.  As said before, our writer is taking all we’ve heard and putting it before the Lord.

Spare me from wickedness and all the madness that comes with it.  Something like, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  The psalmist is truly at peace with being known well by God.  It is life itself.  No matter what secrets the psalmist has, no matter what enemies, confidence in the love of God is boldly affirmed and cherished.

That’s true for us.  No matter what secrets we have, no matter what enemies we have, we have confidence in the love of God.  That love has especially been revealed through our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The all-knowing and ever-present God is love.  Without a doubt, we can say “to know God is to love God.”  That love is imparted to us, and so each of us can say “to know me is to love me.”

Wouldn’t that work well with either truth or dare?

 

[1] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 13.

[2] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season (New York: HarperOne, 1977), 213.

[3] Eric Peels, “‘I Hate Them with Perfect Hatred’ (Psalm 139:21-22),” Tyndale Bulletin 59:1 (2008): 35-36.

[4] Peels, 47.


no fear

Were any of you bullied when you were in school?  It doesn’t necessarily mean that someone tried to pick fights with you (or maybe did pick fights!).  Among girls, bullying rarely ends in fisticuffs.  But I won’t speak for my sisters; you can recall your own experiences!  We can think of many different ways someone can be bullied.

1 1 jn 4There was a particular fellow in high school, who for some reason I never figured out, decided I would be a good person to harass.  He never overtly tried to pick a fight, but when he was baiting me, I knew if I responded in an aggressive way, it would be something that he welcomed.  Kind of like a “make my day” sort of thing!

I’ll admit—I was intimidated by him.  I was afraid of him.  Still, aside from that, I just wasn’t interested in fighting, period.  I wasn’t interested in fighting anybody.  Maybe it had to do with being raised in a loving family.  Our home was not a fearful, violent place.  It was a safe place.  I don’t know about my friend from high school.  I don’t know what his home life was like.

Fear can be a controlling factor in our lives.  Sometimes it hides behind other emotions, for example, anger or despair.  Bullies are people filled with fear, and they project that fear out into the world.  A bully who’s been given authority—especially great authority—is a dangerous thing.

In her book, The Scent of Jasmine, Patricia McCarthy, changing the focus to faith, says, “There is no place for fear in the Christian life, not because we manipulate our emotions, but because we trust our risen Lord.  We choose to trust rather than to fear.  We choose to let God protect us, rather than defend ourselves.”[1]

The idea that we choose to fear, given what I just said, probably sounds strange.  We might object, “I just can’t help it!”

It might be useful to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fear.  Fear of fire…fear of wolves encircling you, growling and showing their teeth…fear of your wife—that’s healthy fear!  Fear of going outside…fear of taking risks…fear that keeps you pinned down—that’s unhealthy fear!

Clearly, every person has her or his own story, and there isn’t one easy remedy, but it seems that, in some way, we do choose that latter kind of fear.  Several times in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not fear.”  And in today’s epistle reading, we see that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (v. 18).

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Much of our fear deals with being left out, with being rejected, or with being denied the material necessities of life.

When he was a pastor in Clinton, Mississippi, Stan Wilson wrote about that kind of fear.  He said their church had “an unwritten rule: we will never ignore a member’s basic need.”[2]  Whether it’s someone out of work, someone with a medical need, whatever, they would come together and find ways to help.  It might have been through a benevolence fund, churchwide garage sale, or some other creative means.

During a Bible study one time, Wilson asked the people there, “Why not make it official?  Why not state out loud that no matter how bad it gets, we will be there for one another?”

He says, “I didn’t get an answer at the Bible study.  In fact, the very mention of the subject seemed embarrassing, as if I had violated a taboo and uttered that which must not be spoken.  I suspect that not only do we fear the future, we also fear each other.  We are afraid that somebody will try to take advantage of us, afraid that we will have to expose ourselves at our most intimate, private level: our bank balance.”

(Actually, I can think of other more intimate, private levels, but for the moment, I’ll go along with Wilson!)

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The author of 1 John deals with this very thing.  In chapter 3, we’re asked the question: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv. 17-18).  And in today’s reading, we’re reminded, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (v. 8).

Wilson said he didn’t doubt that the members of his church loved each other.  He just wanted them to publicly proclaim it.  Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to have a fear of commitment.  In fact, our culture runs on fear and disordered desire.  And that stuff infects the church.

But the church, when it embraces its identity, is counter-cultural.  He wonders, “What happens if a little congregation breaks the rules and removes the fear by promising to care for one another?”  I wonder about that myself.  What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?  This congregation does that better than some others, but what would it look like to take it even further?

“We might reveal the risen Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for his sheep.

“With a living God loose in the world, we might no longer live in fear, and no longer believe that the world runs only when people look out solely for themselves.  We might start to look out for one another, and violate one of the cardinal rules of our economic order.”

4 1 jn 4How can we do that?  For example, how can we break the grip of what Jesus calls “Mammon”: money and possessions, that become an idol, a false god?  Again, there isn’t one easy remedy.

Matthew and Mark tell us of a rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking about eternal life.  Drawing on the targeted advice Jesus gives him, there is one good way to deal with Mammon.  Just give it away!  That helps prevent wealth from setting up shop in our hearts.  (If you ask me if I practice what I’m preaching, I might need to respond, “Are you asking me how often I do that?”)

Recall the reaction of the young man.  Mark 10:22 says, “When he heard [what Jesus said], he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  He was used to the advantages his wealth provided him.  It had become part of his identity.

Something that’s part of my identity is white privilege.  It enables me to avoid the day-to-day crap that my black brothers and sisters deal with.  Sam McKenzie, Jr. talks about “racial wealth.”[3]  The rich young man has financial wealth.  Too often, I’m oblivious to the wealth I have.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back home from our trip to Tennessee, I was pulled over by the police not very far from home.  The officer said my taillights weren’t on.  (Which was true.)  I gave him the registration for our rental car, and he went back to his car to check things out.  He came back and said he would let me go.  After driving away, I asked Banu, “I wonder what would have happened if I were black?”  I honestly don’t know.

Recognizing our privilege can be fearful, because it calls us to action.  It calls us out of our comfort zone.  It calls us to hear stories that we possibly would rather not hear.

We have to confront our fears, and we have to do it with love.  That is, we must do it with love if we are to be Easter people.  Otherwise, we deny the resurrection power Jesus gives us.

5 1 jn 4The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi, who “was afraid of lepers.  One day he kissed a leper and the fear vanished.  It is important to note that the fear vanished after he kissed the leper, not before.  Before the fear left him, Francis had to take the risk of loving…

“There is a mutuality here in terms of cause and effect.  It is necessary to work against fear if we are to try loving our enemies, and it is absolutely necessary to risk loving our enemies if we want to be free of fear.  Like St. Francis, we need to risk acts of love before we experience feelings of love.”[4]

Why, at this point, do I bring in love of the enemy?  Besides the fact that Jesus stresses the need for it, “love of the enemy” speaks to so much of what we fear.  It is so darn hard to love those we consider enemies, whether consciously or subconsciously.  It requires a setting aside of self.

According to our scripture reading, the remedy for fear is love.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (v. 18).  Earlier I asked, “What would happen if this little congregation broke the rules and removed the fear by promising to care for one another?”  Can we take that one step more?  How do we translate that love among us to the outward community?

How do we go from the church father Tertullian, who famously reported the saying about Christians, “See how they love one another,” to living that here and now?  How do we live the call, and loving encouragement of Jesus to live a life of no fear?  Are we plagued by an inner bully, a bully who needs to hear again the warning—and the reassurance, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

I imagine we can see how that is warning.  It does sound stern.  However, can we see it as reassurance?  I sure need to.  Sometimes my love grows cold.  I need the fire of the Holy Spirit to set me aflame.  When I am floundering and drifting, when I do not know God, God is merciful, for God is love.

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Verse 13 says, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”  (I’m going to draw on my experiences with the Assemblies of God, those blessed Pentecostal folks!)  Do we yearn for the Spirit to fire us up again, to burn with holy love?

By the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, we will tell those bullies, “We have no fear, because we live in love.”

 

[1] Patricia McCarthy, The Scent of Jasmine (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 46.

[2] www.religion-online.org/article/ties-that-bind-1-john-316-24-john-1011-18-acts-4-12

[3] medium.com/@SamMcKenzieJr/white-privilege-its-stuck-in-the-pages-of-the-bible-764dea10aaa5

[4] McCarthy, 60-61.


remove the shroud

The Lord “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (vv. 7-8a).  I sometimes use that scripture from Isaiah 25 in funeral services.  I just love that imagery.  The Lord will rip the shroud of doom and despair off and tear it into little pieces.  (Or maybe it can be reworked and turned into fine clothing!)

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That picture of death and life is so fitting for today—that is, this very day and also these days.

We can compare that shroud to the funeral pall which is often placed on coffins.  On a side note, our Book of Common Worship says this about funerals, “When the body is present, the coffin should be closed before the service begins.  It may be covered with a white funeral pall.”[1]  That’s in the section called, “The Funeral: A Service of Witness to the Resurrection.”  For a Christian, oddly (or appropriately) enough, the ultimate focus isn’t on the departed, but on the risen One.  That’s the theology behind it.

And isn’t that the story of Easter itself?  It’s no longer the departed, but the resurrected.

Still, we need to back up.  We can’t have all of that shredding of shrouds without knowing where the deathly despair came from in the first place.  At the start of the chapter, the prophet is praising the Lord, saying, “you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt” (v. 2).  The Lord has come to their rescue.  The city symbolizing their enemies has been destroyed.  Throughout so much of the Old Testament, that city is Babylon.

In its day, Babylon was a true superpower.  It was unparalleled in economic and military might.  It was the icon of beauty.  It was the envy of all people, both near and far.  It was the city.  Reflecting on its collapse, one writer puts it this way: “The World Capital Falls.”[2]  Throughout history, many world capitals have risen and fallen.

2 easterThe tide turns in dramatic fashion.  Now “strong peoples will glorify [God]; cities of ruthless nations will fear [the Lord]” (v. 3).  Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “Superpowers will see it and honor you, brutal oppressors bow in worshipful reverence.”  The Lord has protected the poor from rain of tempest and reign of terror.

The scales are balanced, and all nations are invited to the mountain of God.  A dinner bell like none other is being rung.  Everyone receives the RSVP to the banquet of the ages.  Again, Peterson: “A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts” (v. 6).

And then, there’s the main event.  The shroud, the sheet, the veil that has blanketed the world with devastation and desolation is torn away.  Tears of anguish and agony are wiped away.  Death is forever defeated.  It is time for resurrection.  It’s time to remove the shroud.

Remember Jesus with Lazarus.  Jesus summons him to come out of the cave which is his tomb.  Amid the gasping of onlookers, Jesus directs them to the grave clothes of Lazarus.  He tells them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn 11:44).  Remove the shroud.

Can we think of ways in which nations and populations today exist under that sheet, that blanket of gloom and darkness?  Can we think of veils that need to be removed?

How about we as individuals?  Can we imagine our own coverings, our own curtains that need to be pulled?

I asked Banu if she had a death shroud which needed to be removed.  She didn’t take very long in answering.  She said it was her need to control.  I wondered how that could be called death for her.  Her response was, “It raises my blood pressure!”  There are several layers of meaning in that!

What about me?  What death shroud do I need to have removed?  Probably quite a few!  One thing I definitely can put my finger on is my tendency to too often be indecisive.  I need more facts; I need to explore more avenues to follow.  It really can be a shroud, a veil, something that obscures.

I tell you, I know how to overcome it; although, I’m not sure how to proceed!

Half-joking aside, we can see the shroud, the veil covering the nations, as something that blinds faith.  It prevents us from seeing through the eyes of faith.  When we look upon our world, seeing through the eyes of faith doesn’t seem to make sense.  It seems like we’re believing in fairy tales.  We’re not dealing with the hard facts of the day.  And this resurrection business: it’s just a load of hogwash.  When someone or something is dead, it’s just dead.  Case closed.

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“Not so fast!” says St. Paul.

So we come to chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthians—the chapter on resurrection.  He issues a reminder to them.  And here it is.  “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain” (vv. 1-2).

They, and we, can be blinded by faltering faith.

Having said that, I need to interject something.  It is normal to doubt.  The faith we are called to is not blind faith.  In Mark 12:30, Jesus tells us to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  To love God with all our mind can’t be done with a closed mind.  It is fine—and necessary—to ask questions.  It’s necessary to ask hard questions.

Now, having said that, Paul reminds the church how they stand in the gospel, in the good news.

I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “Standing on the Promises.”  Here’s the first verse: “Standing on the promises of Christ my King, / Thro’ eternal ages let His praises ring; / Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, / Standing on the promises of God.”

And now the refrain: “Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my Savior / Standing, standing, I’m standing on the promises of God.”

When we are standing, when we take our stand, we have a firm foundation.  We rely on the one who, as we saw earlier, protects in the midst of “rain of tempest and reign of terror.”

What is the promise in which they stand?  Paul hands on what he has received, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (vv. 4-5).  That is the gospel in miniature, the gospel in a nutshell.  He is encouraging them in a faith that brings light, that opens eyes, that removes the veil.

What is the death shroud the apostle needs to remove?  He doesn’t say it in so many words, but he does point out his need for self-effacement, his need to move past self-promotion.  And he seems to take that pretty seriously, because he refers to himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle” (v. 9).

It’s really important for him to acknowledge his past, to not look for excuses or say someone else made him do it.  Paul admits he went ballistic in tormenting the church.  He “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, [committing] them to prison” (Ac 8:3).  He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (9:1).

He was on his way to Damascus to nab some more disciples on that fateful day when a light from heaven changed his life.  That light took away his vision for three days.  When the disciple Ananias prayed for him, the shroud was lifted.  Paul had been blind—blind in so many ways.

At the beginning, I mentioned the picture of death and life and how it’s fitting for today.  In many ways, we as a culture worship death.  We ignore calls for justice; we pollute God’s good creation; we choose war over peace; we hold grudges, choking the life we could share; we fail to give those struggling with their demons the good news that they are forgiven—they are forgiven by God, through Jesus Christ.  I’ll grant you, that’s not the most affirming laundry list we could come up with!

In the life of faith, the shroud of gloom and doom and death is lifted.  In his vision, Isaiah powerfully speaks of how it covers the whole earth, that is, until God rips it apart!  We think of how we as individuals fit in.  The apostle Paul demonstrates his own life from death.

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Then there is the crowning glory of Easter, its very meaning: the shroud of death which no longer binds Jesus.  The light of Easter chases away the darkness, and we are called to be Easter people.  Our prayer is, “Remove the shroud.”  So I ask again, what coverings, what death shrouds, do we need removed?  With the power of the resurrection, the deathless one, Jesus the Messiah, yanks that sucker off.

 

[1] Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 911.

[2] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), 196.


herd mentality

On Palm Sunday, we remember an ancient practice.  When the conquering hero would ride into town, people would welcome him by carpeting his path with palm leaves.  In the case of Jesus, the people are expressing their hopes.  He’s there to lead them against the Romans!

Of course, he’s not mounted on a mighty stallion; he’s riding a lowly donkey.  Connection has been made to the book of Zechariah, which says in chapter 9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (v. 9).

In his gospel, St. Mark tells us, as Jesus rides a colt into town, “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (11:8-9).

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Are the people cheering really interested in being his disciples?  What would that mean for them?

I’m not the first to point out how the crowd on Palm Sunday bears little resemblance to the crowd on Good Friday.  Or does it?  In neither case is the spirit of discipleship demonstrated.  Jesus shows how fleeting and fickle fame really is.  In a matter of days, the people go from calling for a crown on his head—to calling for his head.  In doing this, the crowd has a mind of its own.

Our reading in the book of Isaiah has an interesting Hebrew word.  In verse 4, we hear, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher.”  The word used for “teacher” (לׅמֻּד, limmud) can also mean “disciple,” one who is taught.  God has given me the tongue of a disciple.  That word is also at the end of the verse.  “Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”  Those who are taught:  to listen as disciples.

According to the prophet, the teacher is a disciple.  The disciple is a teacher.  This is a person who always wants to learn, and who always wants to share what has been learned.  We’re reminded that “the speaker is aware of his need to learn, and has the humility to confess that need.”[1]

The path of discipleship is one of endless training.  It is one of endless training of others.  That’s a calling that we share with the prophet, the Servant of the Lord.  Being a disciple of Christ means wanting to be like Christ.  That requires both meekness and courage.

On the point of the crowd having a mind of its own, I have a story to tell, one I’m not too happy about.  It involves the Texas state Capitol, the KKK, some hardened clumps of dirt, and a moment about which I’m not terribly proud.

In 1983, during my freshman year of college, I went with a friend (and more than a thousand other people) to watch the Ku Klux Klan as they marched on the Capitol building in Austin.  Police and news helicopters were flying all over the place.  It felt almost like we were about to be occupied by an army!

2 palm sunday

Among the crowds were people carrying signs, people yelling at the Klansmen, and others (like me) who were just curious and wanted to see what was going on.  As the marchers made their way toward the Capitol building, they moved through thicker and thicker crowds along the road.  You could feel the hatred in the air.  It was just a matter of time before someone got bored with hurling insults and decided to hurl something else.

It began with a couple of small stones and quickly escalated into a barrage of rocks.  Even though the Klansmen came equipped with plexiglass shields (maybe they expected this kind of reception!), some projectiles managed to hit home.  There was more than one bloody face among them.  (I should say they were wearing their pointy hoods, but they were unmasked).

When they reached the spot where their cars and vans were parked, demonstrators started smashing the windows.  It was the final angry act of the day.

There’s one moment, though, in that afternoon of violence that remains with me.  At one point, when the Klansmen had circled around behind the Capitol, people were running in all directions.  I had stopped and was surveying the scene (being careful to avoid the crossfire of rocks!).  Suddenly, a young black man who was about my age stopped running and knelt about ten yards from me.  He was gathering some hard, dry clumps of dirt to fire at our white-robed friends.

He must have noticed out of the corner of his eye someone was standing there; he just froze and looked up at me.  There we were—two young guys, one white and one black—the black one probably wondering what the white one would do.  And what the white one did was to give the black one a little smile, as if to say, “Go for it!”  He returned the smile, picked up his weapons, and disappeared into the crowd.

I believe now, as I did then, that the constitutional right to peacefully assemble is vitally important.  Even a group I find as repugnant as the Ku Klux Klan has the right to express its opinion, as long as they’re not advocating violence.  (Admittedly, that’s a tough sell with a group like the Klan.)

The irony on that day was the KKK was being peaceful, if it’s possible for them.  Still, wearing those bedsheets stirs up the legacy of terrorism.  At the very least, they were just walking; they weren’t shouting or shaking their fists.  It was the onlookers who were violent.  And I was a part of that violence.  In my own way, I became a contributor to mob mentality.  That’s not a good feeling.  I allowed the crowd to do my thinking for me.

For those interested in being interim pastors, the Presbyterian Church requires two weeks of training, at least six months apart.  One of the main things we looked at was the congregation as a system: a family system, an emotional system, and so on.  We also looked at how systems get stuck—how they get paralyzed and can’t seem to progress.

There are a number of reasons, but one of them is something I’ve been talking about.  It’s the mentality of the mob, the herd mentality.  Maybe some of us have had an experience of church like this.  There can be a group dynamic in which the congregation bands together and shames those who have questions.  There can be cult-like behavior.  Compulsion is used to whip people into shape.

Many studies have been done about herd mentality.  As individuals, we can feel anonymous in a crowd—or sometimes on the internet.  No one knows who we are.  Sometimes it leads us to do things, that if we were by ourselves, we would never dream of doing.

This doesn’t have to work for the bad.  When the community of faith works in a healthy way, those things we would never dream of doing are awesome and beautiful.

For example, by ourselves, it takes added courage to protest for justice.  With others, we are heartened in an amazing way.  By ourselves, singing and praising the Lord is definitely a beautiful and soul-enriching thing.  But with others, singing and praising becomes a powerful and magnificent wave.

In the Palm Sunday story, along with the sincere adoration of Jesus, can’t we also sense an element of desperation—the desperation of a people who feel beaten down?  When these desperate people realize that Jesus won’t comply with their wishes, things get ugly.  They get anxious, with a vengeance.  (But that’s the story of Good Friday!)

3 palm sunday

When we’re anxious, we become reactive, as opposed to responsive.  A good way to think of it is to compare “reacting” to a knee-jerk “reaction.”  It’s automatic.  It doesn’t take any thought.  When we respond, we’re taking a moment to actually think things through, to weigh the options.

Being reactive is often a good thing; it can save our lives.  If our hand is on a hot stove, that’s probably not the time to think and weigh our options.  Get your hand off the stove!

Getting back to my story about the Klan, we see an extreme example of reactivity.  (I would say that throwing rocks at people qualifies as “extreme.”)  Of course, it helps if there’s a group that is easy to hate, like the KKK.

Going along with this, we see violence cloaked with righteousness.  Too often it seems like justice has to be served by wiping out somebody else.  If I disagree with you, then you’re my enemy.  Forget for a moment what Jesus says about loving our enemies.

Church consultant Speed Leas has done a lot of work on congregational conflict.  He says that situations sometimes get to the point where people “won’t stop fighting because they feel it’s immoral to stop.  They believe they are called by God to destroy the evil.”

At our interim pastor training, a story was told of a minister who, after leaving a church, moved to the other side of the country.  However, there was a husband and wife determined to track him down.  To put it bluntly, they decided to stalk him.  Upon discovering his new address, they came up with a plan.  They took a frozen fish, allowed it to thaw, put it in a package, and mailed it to him.

To use a term which seems to have become popular, maybe they felt like he didn’t pass the smell test.  Or perhaps there’s another explanation.  Could it be the couple had a reputation for always carping about something?

As we can see, giving in to the herd mentality can lead to some unpleasant, even fishy, outcomes.

So, today on this Palm Sunday, where are we?  (Presumably, not gathering up rocks or thawing out fish!)

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, “Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is ‘attend.’  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at a service than an observably different lifestyle.”[2]

Sometimes we’ve been swept along with the herd; we’ve disappeared into the crowd.  At such times, we have lost ourselves; we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  Sadly (and speaking for myself), we might have chosen the path of cowardice.

But much more importantly, we have also experienced communion, the solidarity of the saints.  We have discovered and welcomed the courage of Christ.

4 palm sunday

So, regardless of what the herd says or does, be it the cheering and joy of Palm Sunday or the jeering and rage of Good Friday, we take hold of Christ and confidently say with the prophet in Isaiah 50, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7).

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1965), 201.

[2] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 276.