Now, Wait a Minute…

photo by kewl from pixabay.com – used with permission

(sermon 2/21/21 – First Sunday in Lent)

Mark 1:9-15  

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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There are different ways of writing for different purposes. Each way has different expectations, different rules, written or unwritten, different vocabularies, rhythms, meters, based on the type of writing it is. We write one way if we’re writing a journal or diary entry, another way for an online classified ad, another for a real estate listing. One way for writing meant primarily to be read, and another for writing meant primarily to be spoken and heard. One way for a legal pleading, another for a novel and another for a short story. In fact, it can get a bit confusing and counterproductive when we don’t follow those assumptions and rules that guide the different ways we write for different situations: “Now, through Darrow and Holmes, his attorneys, and unto this honorable Court, comes the above-named John Smith, plaintiff herein, who enjoys movies, concerts, pina coladas and quiet walks along the beach…” We mix our writing genres and styles at our peril.

Today, we heard a bit of the beginning of Mark’s gospel. For our own purposes, Mark was pretty much the inventor of the gospel genre of writing. His work was the earliest of the four gospels, so it probably isn’t surprising that stylistically, it’s a bit different than the others. The style of writing a gospel hadn’t yet had time to mature or become more elaborate. Mark’s gospel is more direct, more to the point, than the others that have come down to us. Biblical scholars have noted that Mark didn’t write in an overly sophisticated or formal style of Greek; in fact, they’ve suspected that based on his vocabulary and style, he seems to have been someone much more accustomed to speaking rather than formal writing.

Mark’s gospel tries to drive us, to get us to what he considers the most important part of his story about Jesus – that he’s the Son of God, and the details of his teaching. Because of that, Mark almost rushes through the very beginning of Jesus’ story. In fact, one of the most common words in Mark’s gospel is “immediately” – Jesus and the disciples did this; then they “immediately” went to some other place and did such and such; it happens over and over again in this gospel. Mark also condenses parts of the story he considers less critical in order to get where he thinks it matters most. The other gospels have more details about Jesus’ birth, youth, John the Baptizer, Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the Wilderness are all teased out in greater detail in other gospels.

We heard today that Mark cuts through all of those things in just a few short sentences, or giving them no mention at all, so he can quickly get us to where his story really begins – Jesus’ teaching ministry. Mark does make one important point in these preliminaries – the pronouncement for God that Jesus is God’s beloved son, the anointed one. As a somewhat interesting sidebar, in the accounts of Jesus’ baptism in other gospels, where the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descends “on” Jesus, in Mark’s Greek, the Holy Spirit descends “into” Jesus – and that’s important, in order to establish Jesus’ divinity and identity in a gospel where you don’t have an incarnational birth narrative like Matthew’s or Luke’s. But even at that, the three important points in today’s gospel text – Jesus’ baptism and divine identity; his testing in the wilderness; and with John the Baptizer’s arrest, the fulfillment of time for Jesus’ own ministry to begin – all happen so quickly that you want to say “Now, wait a minute, Mark – slow down!. Let’s consider these things and their importance a bit more slowly.”

Today, the First Sunday in Lent, it’s important for us to at least slow down and consider one of those things – Jesus’ forty days of testing, temptation, and preparation in the wilderness, because it’s a model, a foreshadowing, of our own forty days of Lent, our own preparation that we observe leading up to the joy of Easter. Jesus’ time in the wilderness  was a time for him to engage in serious soul searching about his life, his identity, purpose, and his calling from God; set against very real obstacles and temptations of an easier life found in the things of the world. And Lent is intended to be a similar time of soul-searching, identity clarification, and recommitment to God’s claim on us, too.

They say that confession is good for the soul, and I certainly believe that. In that spirit, I’m going to make a confession to you: I have never, ever, successfully given up anything for Lent. Never. No particular food, no special comfort or treat, no practice, no bad habit, no petty vice, and certainly not for want of their actual existence. Many years I haven’t even tried, and the times I have, I’ve failed at it. In fact, the only thing I’ve succeeded at giving up during Lent has been the practice of giving up something for Lent. As I’ve wondered about that perfect, dismal record of failure and why that might be, I think I’ve come to realize that while giving up something like that might be a nice symbol of our desire to repent from worldly pleasures, and turn more toward God, at the end of the day, it’s just that – a symbol. And while Noom might care whether I ate that Hershey’s bar – or, who’s kidding who; they’re small, so let’s just say two of them – I don’t think that ultimately, God does. God has seemed to make pretty clear through the scriptures in both Testaments, and especially through Jesus, that God cares very little about mere outward appearances and symbolic gestures that aren’t tied to something more concrete and meaningful. God is more concerned with the truth of our lives, and the honesty of our faith and our actions.

In my mind, it seems insulting to God to equate the giving up of, say, Big Macs, with the giving up of our biases and prejudices, and working to correct our cultural blind spots that cause other to suffer here in this country and globally. It seems to be a kind of cheap grace to think we’ve pleased God, and proved our devotion, by, say, giving up watching our favorite Netflix series for the next six weeks – especially since we know we’ll just binge-watch all those missed episodes after Easter – with giving up some of our time to help make meals for unsheltered folks, or to collect furniture for a refugee family, or tutor a child at risk of falling behind academically.

And besides, I’ve got to say, haven’t we all given up plenty this past year already without talking about giving up anything more?

Of course, I’m being a little facetious. There are definitely some things that would please God if we gave them up, and not just during Lent but forever. I just mentioned a few of those things. But there are other things, too; maybe not the kind of things that a person might immediately think about being something to give up for Lent. How about finally, once and for all, giving up the self-defeating attitude that you just aren’t good enough, not in God’s eyes or in the eyes of others? That you aren’t this enough or you’re too much of that, or that you just aren’t applying yourself enough and if you just worked at it a bit harder, then, THEN, maybe God would be pleased with you and accept you. There are many people who have given and sacrificed so much of themselves for others that there’s almost nothing left of themselves; I don’t think God wants them to feel like they need to give up even more in order for God to be happy with them. How about giving up for Lent those feelings of inadequacy, insufficiency, unlovability?

I think giving up those things would be very pleasing to God, and they would help to clarify two important realities: first, that God is a God of love and grace; and second, that that love and grace surrounds you, enfolds you, envelopes you, every minute of every day. That God, who knows your flaws and shortcomings better than you know them yourself, and has known them since before you were born, has unilaterally decreed you worthy and lovable. There’s no need for you to live forty days, or forty years, or an entire lifetime, in a self-imposed, self-defined wilderness of self-doubt, self-debasement, and self-punishment.

Maybe the most important thing behind the tradition of giving certain material things up for Lent is the idea of renouncing the claim those things make on your life – letting go of their pull, and the false sense of comfort and security the give us; and trusting ourselves, our comfort, our security, our lives, our everything – to God. Like the child Joyce mentioned, giving up the security and safety of standing on the dock, and trusting enough to just let go, and to jump into the water and their parent’s waiting, loving arms. Ultimately, the child trusts, because the child knows the parent loves them. And that’s a key point, because at its core, the story of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness is one chapter in a love story – a chapter about God’s love for Jesus. And our symbolic Lenten recreation of that same kind of testing and reflection  is another chapter in that love story, this time a chapter about God’s love for us. It’s an amazing, wonderful story; it’s the greatest love story of all time, no matter what vocabulary might be used, and no matter what style it’s told in, no matter whether it’s written or spoken.  

Thanks be to God.

Transfiguring Dignity

Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor, Israel. Photo by Paul Wellauer at pixabay.com. Used with permission

(sermon 2/14/21 – Transfiguration Sunday)

Mark 9:2-10  

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

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We packed into the little minivan, a bunch of us from seminary who were doing J-term study in Israel and Palestine, very early one morning at the foot of Mount Tabor – the mountain that sits just about four miles or so east of Nazareth that, while no one knows for sure where it really happened, is at least the traditional site of the Transfiguration. We sat in the minivan packed like sardines, while the driver and tour guide sat up front, discussing something in Arabic as we doubled back and forth on the precarious little switchback road leading up the side of the mountain on our way to the top.

When we arrived, the whole mountaintop was encased in a thick fog; a silvery-grey mist filling the air, deadening sound and giving everything a magical feel that made you believe that yes, maybe something as mystical as the Transfiguration could have really happened right here, and something just as mystical could even happen again on this very morning.

And it was something mystical, something hard to imagine, this Transfiguration. Peter, James, and John just going along with Jesus for what they assumed was another routine mountainside bit of prayer time, when suddenly, Jesus is transformed, glowing, radiant, whiter than the brightest white; and he’s joined by Moses and Elijah. From a theological standpoint, their presence – Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the foremost prophet – are a sign, a validation that Jesus is indeed the summation of the Law and Prophets, God’s specially chosen one. It’s validation to us that our God-given trust and faith in Christ is justified. And also, in a way, it’s a sign that in a way clearly not identical, but in some equally mysterious and inexplicable way, God changes, transforms, transfigures us as well, making us new creations.

A big part of being that new creation is recognizing, and being grateful for, the dignity inherent in each of us – having been created in, and bearing, the very image of God. A dignity that doesn’t lead to any sense of superiority or supremacy of haughtiness – just the opposite, actually. This dignity leads to a recognition of the beauty and connectedness of all of us. A quiet, humble celebration of the goodness and love that dwells within and connects all of us, and that we’re all capable of; and, honestly, coupled with a disgust, a tiredness of people being ugly to one another. Maybe, as I think about it, it isn’t that God transforms us and then we recognize that dignity; maybe it’s in the recognizing of that dignity, of God’s thumbprint on our soul, that God achieves the transforming. Because there absolutely is transformative power in that dignity that God has given us.

One day while I was working as a hospital chaplain, I glanced at the names of the patients on one of my floors in the hospital, and I recognized one of the names. It was the name of a very well-known architect in the city, part of a partnership that had designed a number of large, impressive projects over many years. I was intrigued – it wasn’t really a common name – L___d – and I wondered if it was just coincidence, or if it was the same person, so I visited that room first that day. I knocked on the open door and stepped into the room. Inside, there was an old, gaunt man propped up in the bed, while a staffer gave him a partial sponge bath. He had a vacant look in his eyes; he clearly didn’t know exactly where he was or why. He had an bad case of hospital hair, several day’s growth on his face. He was sitting on a bedpan but couldn’t remember asking for it and said he didn’t know if he needed it. Overall, he looked distant, depressed, and just, well, small.

I sat down next to him, calling him by name, introducing myself and asking if he’d like a visit and to talk. We made a little chitchat, to the extent that he was able, while the aide continued quietly caring for him. After a couple of minutes, I asked if he was, in fact, the architect. I told him that I’d also been an architect and that if he was, I’d always been impressed by his work, that his firm was the kind of firm I’d have loved to have worked for. He smiled faintly and said that yes, he was the architect. We discussed the profession a bit, and we talked about some of his firm’s noteworthy projects while he sat there, looking tired and somewhat distant. Then, I asked him what his favorite project had been, and he told me it wasn’t any of the big projects he’d done, but rather, a small church that he’d designed in conjunction with the very famous Italian architect whose name anyone architecturally in the know would recognize immediately. I asked him about the project, and what it was like to work with him. And as he started to answer me, something happened. Something magical. He smiled, and he suddenly gained a clarity in his eye. He sat up, his shoulders broadened, it was almost like he got physically bigger, his presence filled the room. He regained his presence – he regained his dignity. In a moment, he was no longer a tired old man battling dementia in a hospital bed, he was the consummate professional again, the mover and shaker, sitting behind his executive desk in the corner office in his expensive suit and holding court with a younger protege. He told me about that project for maybe five or ten minutes, and during that whole time, I was spellbound, not only by the fascinating story itself, but by his transformation. For at least that ten minutes, he’d regained himself. He’d been transformed, transfigured, through that spark of human dignity. And then, when his story was done, just as quickly as it appeared, it was over. He shrunk back, and became the tired, confused man still sitting on the bedpan. It was a remarkable thing to experience. It was a gift – to him, to me, and to the hospital staffer who had seen it all and was amazed and commented on it, too. That was the first and last time I ever got the chance to talk with L____d; I saw in the newspaper that he’d died probably less than a year after our encounter, but I’ll never forget it, or him.

Human dignity – sometimes hidden, but always present within each of us – is one of the greatest expressions of God’s love for us, and one of greatest gifts that God has given us.

Once we experience that kind of life-changing dignity, once we’ve seen its magical, transfiguring power and beauty within ourselves and within others, how could we not want to help others recognize and experience it within them, too? I firmly believe that’s at the center of our purpose in this life. That even though each of us walks our own particular path laid out for us by God, the whole point, the central focus, of all of those paths is to help all of God’s people know and live that dignity – the dignity that comes when we’re accepted as equals, and treated with compassion, and justice, and equity. The dignity that comes when you aren’t made to feel less than. When you don’t have to worry about, or be afraid of not having enough food, or shelter, or a decent education, or adequate healthcare, or meaningful work.

I don’t imagine any of us will ever experience a transfiguration as dazzling and impressive as Jesus did, whether it was on Mount Tabor or somewhere else, at least not until our own resurrection. Maybe some of us will experience a transfiguration sometime in our lives as dramatic, even if not with the specific details, that I was blessed to share with L_____d in the hospital that day. But all of us, as followers of Jesus Christ, all of us, as people of God’s realm, have, in a very real way, already been transfigured; we do all have that bit of divine/human dignity within us. And together, as God’s people, God calls us to help others in every way God makes available to us to discover that same dignity, and experience that same transfiguration, within themselves.

Amen.

The Path is the Point

Ruins of the synagogue at Capernaum. Image used with permission. By Jong-man Kim at Pixabay.

(sermon 1/31/21)

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

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Sitting right on the northwestern edge of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was a small town of about 1,500 people or so in Jesus’ time, where if you didn’t make your living by fishing, you made a living selling goods and services to those who did. It had a public square, and a small market or two, and it must have had some kind of school for the kids, a couple of restaurants, and at least a few taverns, since even with as few as 1,500 people there would have been factions, and each group would have undoubtedly gravitated to their own favorite watering hole. Imagine a first-century Palestinian version of the little fishing village in the BBC show Doc Martin.

It also had one synagogue. We know that not only because the gospels mention one, but also because ancient Capernaum has been the subject of many archeological digs; the perimeter of the town and its ruins include those of one synagogue. It’s actually the ruins of several synagogues, one built on top of another over time, so the ruins you can visit today are of a synagogue built shortly after Jesus’ time, but it sits right overtop of where the one mentions in today’s gospel text sat. You can go there now, and stand in the ruins, and imagine the townspeople seated there in a U-shape around the perimeter of the building, listening to Jesus speak as he began his ministry, and you can maybe feel a bit of a chill up your spine as you think, with apologies to Hamilton, “This is the room where it happened” – or at least, the space where it happened; you’re walking where Jesus walked and taught.

And apparently, according to today’s gospel text, where Jesus also exorcised an “unclean spirit.” A lot of discussion has ensued regarding whether the people in the gospels who were reportedly beset by these unclean spirits were actually possessed by some spiritual being, or whether they were actually just suffering from any one of a number of physical, mental, emotional maladies that we understand now have a more explainable, and less supernatural, less spooky, explanation. And who knows? Maybe the man was just having a really awful week. His kids hated him, his wife just left him, he’s underpaid, overstressed, his boss is breathing down his back, if he has to sit through another Zoom meeting he’s going to explode, life just stinks, and now here comes this person who’s clearly sent by God, and maybe he’d just had enough, he was a the end of his rope, and he just blurted out – what’s *he* going to do, smite us all? Squash us like a bug? What now?

Well, whatever the reality, suffice it to say that what Jesus did was noteworthy. It exhibited real power and authority.

I admit that I wonder how this scene ended up happening to begin with. I mean, at this point, Jesus was still pretty much unknown. He’d picked up his first disciples while walking along the lakeshore just outside of town – Simon and Andrew and their families lived with their mother just a few steps away from the synagogue – but now, just a few days later, here he was – someone nobody knew, with no formal religious training, no seminary degree, not on the Presbytery’s list of approved pulpit supply – he just seems to have shown up at the synagogue that day, a first-time visitor, and he asks to preach, and they say “Sure, no problem; go ahead!” I mean, Springdale has a real reputation for being warm and welcoming to visitors, but that beats anything we’re ever likely to do. However it happened, it happened, and when it did, we hear the story how this man loudly and rudely interrupted him, yelling and screaming out.

As a sidebar, I had a similar experience when I was just starting my own ministry. I had just started serving as a Commissioned Lay Pastor to a little country church in Ohio; I may have been there a month or two, I don’t know – when one day, we had some visitors – a man and his wife, and their two kids, a boy and a girl, well-dressed, well-groomed, pleasant, each of them carrying their own Bible in their own zippered Bible cover. The service that day started out, and I remember the preaching text that day was from 2 Timothy. Just a few sentences into my sermon, I mentioned almost in passing that while it didn’t take anything away from the meaning of the text, most biblical scholars have come to understand that Paul himself hadn’t written this book; that it was likely written by one or more of Paul’s disciples and out of respect attributed to him. But I never got all that out. Once I said that most scholars don’t attribute the book to Paul, the man jumped up. I mean, it was more like he was ejected; like he’d been on a spring-loaded ejection seat. I never saw anyone move that fast. And just as he did, he prodded his wife and kids up, too; they went up one by one, kind of like they were doing the wave; and once they were on their feet, he started yelling at me, “Shame on you! Shame on you! Paul wrote it or he didn’t; he wrote it or he didn’t!” and he pushed his family out into the aisle and they all headed to the door, all while the man kept looking back over his shoulder at me and wagging his finger at me and yelling “Shame! Shame! Blasphemy! False Prophet! False Prophet!!!” And they left, slamming the door behind them. For my part, I wish I’d been as forceful as Jesus was in today’s story, but I wasn’t. Instead, I fumbled around a few seconds, finally caught my bearing, and just continued on. In fact, it wasn’t until a week later that I finally responded in any way to it all. The following Sunday came, and as always, Joe, the usher, was sitting at the back of the little sanctuary in a chair near the entry. When it came time for the sermon, I stepped into the pulpit, paused for a moment, and just said, “Um, Joe… lock the door.”

Well, the way I handled my own encounter with a raving madman just got some laughs, but the response to the way Jesus handled his encounter was very different. The people there were amazed. Shocked. “Did you just see that? Did you see what I saw? What’s this all mean? This man has real power and authority in him!” Frankly, it was unsettling. Maybe even a little scary. “With that kind of power, what else might he do? And what might he do to *me*?”

A lot of Mark’s gospel is meant to emphasize, and witness to, Jesus’ power and authority, and this very opening of his ministry in this gospel means to make clear that Jesus has come into the world to oppose, and to overcome, the forces of evil in this world – and not just some generic definition of evil, but, as the Rev. David Lose has pointed out, Mark sees evil throughout his gospel as “anything and everything that robs God’s children of life” as God intended it. That’s the evil that Jesus came to be victorious over.

Well, if that’s true, then why is the world, why are our lives, still filled with all kinds of that kind of evil that robs us of that kind of life? It isn’t an idle question. It isn’t really a disrespectful or blasphemous question; in fact, it’s a perfectly logical and reasonable one to ask. And it isn’t a particularly new question, either; Christians have been asking that very question since probably a month or so after Jesus’ crucifixion.

I think a part of the answer to that question lies in the way we want Jesus power, and his victory over evil, to work, as opposed to the way he sees it. Through that amazing power and authority, Jesus places us on a journey; a journey of following him, a journey of living in accord with God’s rule. The victory over evil isn’t some one-time, singular, thunderclap event – rather, it’s a continuum, an ongoing process, and we, and our journey, are a part of it. We don’t just sit around waiting for it to happen; it’s all about our being on the path that he’s set for us, that’s all an unfolding part of that victory. In that sense, Jesus has chosen for his power to be participatory, collaborative. The path itself becomes the victory; there’s no waiting for the kingdom of God to unfold in the sky by and by; if you’re on the path toward the ultimate destination, then in an important way, you’re actually already there. Evil has, in fact, been defeated. You are, in fact, living that abundant life.  There’s no need to worry, no need to fear Jesus’ power and authority, because all of it distills down to love for you, and wrath for anything that would rob you of that abundant life you were created for.

In humility, and in a spirit of assurance and gratitude, walk that path, continue on that journey that Christ has placed you on. Walk that path even if it’s difficult, or the path is full of obstacles, or if the way is muddy. Walk that path, filled with the joy and the assurance of Christ’s power and love enfolding you, even if crazed people, possessed by unclean spirits or otherwise, yell and scream at you and oppose you. Walk that path even if you can’t see what’s coming up around the next bend. Just walk that path because Christ, the one who preached in that Capernaum synagogue, loves you, and is strengthening you, and is guiding you in the ways of abundant life; and through Christ, you will get there – in fact, in maybe the most important way, you’re already there.

Thanks be to God.