Reversals

(sermon 5/9/21)

Acts 10 (excerpts)

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

As they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. The Spirit said to Peter, “Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

They came to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends.

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

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It’s inevitable, really. It happens to all of us in different ways from time to time throughout our lives. I’m talking about the reversal. You’re apparent, and you raised your child from infancy, always teaching them, always explaining life and the way things work to them, and then suddenly, one day they’re teaching you something you never new. Or you’re a supervisor, a manager, and one day one of your trainees shows you how to do something better than you ever could. Or you’re a teacher, instructor, professor in academia, and one day one of your students offers a fresh new insight that had never dawned on you before in all of your years of experience.

The reversal in those cases is a bit bittersweet – because really, who ever enjoys being moved to second chair when you’d always been in the first chair up till then? – but at least there’s a sense of satisfaction, of pride, sometimes even some joy in it, because it means you’d done your job of teaching them well, and really, that’s the way things are supposed to be in both the micro- and macro- of human existence – “I must decrease so that you can increase,” as has been said. Those kinds of reversals are expected.

The unexpected ones feel different, though. They’re the ones where the reversal comes entirely out of the blue. Where the one teaching you some lesson isn’t anyone you’d ever imagine. The teacher is someone unexpected, or it happens in a surprising way or setting. That’s the kind of reversal we see in this reading from Acts today.

This is an event that happed after Pentecost, which we’ll observe in two weeks. I’m not sure why the Lectionary bounces around chronologically here, but on Pentecost, we see Jesus’ disciples flowing out into the streets in Jerusalem, speaking in tongues, and Peter speaking out, proclaiming the gospel to the Jewish pilgrims there for the religious holiday, and proclaiming to them that Jesus was the messiah.

As we heard, when this story begins Peter has had this strange vision, three times in fact, in which God tells him to not consider anything unclean and unacceptable to God, even something the scriptures, the Law, declared to be unclean, if God declares it to be clean and acceptable. Peter probably wasn’t completely certain what this vision was all about, or how it might apply to him in the moment. He was probably still trying to understand its implications when Cornelius’ servants arrived looking for him. They ask Peter to visit Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea – a good Gentile, we’re told, but a Gentile nonetheless, and maybe even worse, a Gentile who was part of the Roman Empire’s occupying military force – surely, someone the Law would consider unclean to a good, devout Jew as Peter and pretty much all of Jesus’ disciples were.

Apparently, Peter was able to at least make some immediate connection between his vision and his current circumstances, though, since he invited these unclean Gentiles to spend the night there, at the house, recognizing that offering hospitality to others is more important than maintaining rules of ritual purity.

When they did arrive in Caesarea, even though Cornelius had sent for Peter, to learn from him, the reverse actually happened – Peter learned by listening to Cornelius, that the message of the gospel isn’t just for Jewish ears, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit isn’t just for Jewish hearts, but for Gentiles, too. And just as Phillip came to understand the universality of the Kingdom of God in his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, now here Peter learns the same thing. Just as at Pentecost, Peter ends up preaching, and people are again speaking in tongues – but where on Pentecost, it was the speaking in tongues that brought the audience to hear Peter’s preaching, and it was his preaching that led many of those listeners to follow Jesus; here, in Caesarea, Peter says that it’s him who’s learned something. And the speaking in tongues comes only afterward. In this story, God uses a very unlikely and surprising person to teach Peter an important lesson about the kingdom and the gospel – that there is no one who God considers unclean – that all people are God’s people; that all people are loved by God, that all people – all people – are created in God’s image, and dwelt within by God.

It wasn’t anything new for God to teach things to people in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, with the teacher becoming the student, and the new teacher being someone from completely out in left field. Even Jesus himself experienced this, in his surprising, even shocking, experience of being schooled by the Syrophoenician woman who taught Jesus that his mission was to Jew and Gentile alike.

I’ve come to think that this is God’s favorite manner of revelation, because its very outrageousness and surprise shakes us out of our assumptions and our complacency enough to actually be able to see and understand the message God has in mind. It’s easy to miss, or even intentionally ignore, some important but challenging message delivered in a way that’s too conventional, too expected, too polite. The scriptural account of God’s actions in human existence seems to be a strong witness to the idea that important messages like that often need to be conveyed in ways that are unexpected or even shocking, whether in Peter’s time or in our own.

If that’s true, then who in our own lives might God be using to speak some truth to us? What unexpected people, situations, what unexpected ways might God be using to try to expand our own understanding about God and the nature of God’s kingdom? I mean, most of us can imagine experiencing an encounter with the divine on some majestic mountaintop, or in the middle of an old-growth forest, or while watching some breathtaking sunset on a deserted beach. That’s where we expect to find God. But what if the reality is more often that God is in the unexpected? What if God is trying to speak to us through people and situations that would shock us to even imagine? What if God is less about the beauty of the rain forest and more about the shock of the reversal?

I invite you to think about the people you know, in whatever way, large or small. And imagine the person, or people, that you’d consider the least likely candidate for God to use to teach you something important. Now ask yourself, what if God actually is using that person to try to break through to you – and if so, what might that something be? Recognize that unlikely person is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image every bit as much as you, that they illustrate some particular facet of the multifaceted image of God just as much as you. Consider what surprising, unexpected insight God might want you to learn from them.

It’s an important, humbling exercise that we should all do for ourselves as individual Christians, but also in a collective sense, as the church. Even we Presbyterians, who place a high value on things being done “decently and in order” have to admit that so often, God is the God of the reversal. The unexpected. the unorthodox; the indecent and disorderly. The God of “we’ve never done it that way before;” the God of “well that would be different;” the God of “I’d never thought of it that way before.” Because of the very outrageous, unexpected way that God dwelt among us as one of us, and that God reconciles with us, we should always remember that God might very well be trying to do something unexpected at any time, in any way. Maybe sometime this month. Maybe this week. Maybe even yet today. The idea that God is the God of the unexpected, the God of the reversal, is good news for all of us because it means then that we can have hope in all things, in all situations, even when the odds don’t seem to be in our favor. It’s good news for us because the most powerful ways that God shows us how loved and precious we are so often revealed to us in the unexpected, in the reversal. Our God is indeed the God of the great reversal. Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch learned that. Peter and Corneilus learned that. And, with God’s help, so will we.

Thanks be to God.

Sit Down, We’ll Eat, We’ll Talk

(sermon 4/18/21 – Third Sunday of Easter)

Image by Tri Le from Pixabay

Luke 24:36b-48  

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

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It isn’t any secret, any great mystery, that our world is filled with division. Differences. Arguments; ways of thinking and understanding the world so opposite that a person on one side of a disagreement can’t even imagine how a person on the other side could ever think the way the do. That’s clearly no mystery; that’s simply our daily existence. The mystery is why anyone thinks it was ever any different. Human reality is that it’s always been this way, and if we ever lived in a time or place that we didn’t personally experience those vast differences, it was only because we were privileged, or more accurately handicapped, by living a very sheltered and narrow existence where we didn’t have to be aware of such vast differences.

Those differences certainly existed in Jesus’ time; we hear it in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. Crowds around the cross – Roman soldiers, religious and civic leaders, and ordinary people alike – were mocking and ridiculing Jesus, taunting him. To them, he was a traitor, a troublemaker. Even among those who might have otherwise been sympathetic to his cause, some of them disapproved of his words and his unsettling, confrontational methods, thinking he was only angering the authorities by breaking their laws and customs, and ultimately he was hurting his cause and not helping it. Many people were very glad to see Jesus, the troublemaker, the discomforter, the gadfly, finally getting his, and to be clear, in accordance with the law of the day, Jesus got exactly what he deserved.

At the same time that those people were cheering on Jesus’ execution as a victory for law and order, there were obviously others, many others, who were having the worst day of their lives. They were emotionally gutted, completely demoralized, in shock because of what was happening. And then, just these few days later, everything changed.

If today’s gospel text seems almost like a replay of last week’s, that’s because it largely is. Last week, we heard John’s version of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples that first Easter Sunday evening, and this week, we heard Luke’s version of the story. They’re pretty similar, but there are some differences. According to Luke, Jesus had appeared to some of his disciples earlier in the day and walked with them as they journeyed out from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Now, those disciples had rushed back to Jerusalem and had told the others about having been with Jesus, when out of the blue – just as John told us last week – Jesus shows up in their midst, and from the sound of things, he does it about as nonchalantly as a teenager walking into the house after school and saying “Hey, how’s it going; do we have anything to eat?”

In fact, that’s an important difference between John’s account of that night and Luke’s Both emphasize that even though it was somehow different, Jesus did have a physical body. He wasn’t just a spirit, he wasn’t just a ghost, because if he were a ghost would signify that he was actually dead. No, he had mass, shape, form – he had corporeality. Luke even doubles down on this point more than John, by including the detail of Jesus eating the broiled fish, and likely having some wine to wash it down with. There’s a corny old joke – a skeleton walks into a bar and says “Bartender, give me a beer and a mop!” Luke’s point here is that that didn’t happen – Jesus was real; he was physical; he had a body. In short, Jesus was truly resurrected.

We need to admit here that no matter who we are, at some point, or at many points, we’ve wondered about the factual aspect of the resurrection. We may have completely rejected the idea as a literal event. That’s understandable, because on balance, all of us are reasonably sane and rationale and logical and scientific, and the resurrection is none of that. And many of us have also said something along the lines that if somehow it ended up being possible to categorically prove that Jesus wasn’t resurrected, or that his resurrection was purely spiritual, or that accounts of his resurrection are meant to be allegorical or metaphorical, that it wouldn’t really change our faith much at all; because so much of our faith is about life in the here and now, regardless of the possibility of some “golden ticket” to heaven, and eternity.

I get that, and on some days, I’ve even said that. It’s a true statement. But still, even for as postmodern, post-traditional, progressive as my own personal theology is, I still believe – on most days, anyway – I still believe in Jesus’ real, physical resurrection. I believe that his resurrection was indeed metaphorical on several levels, but I think it was much more than that, too. Maybe if I’m being completely honest, and I do try to be – I don’t believe in Jesus’ literal resurrection because of any complex theological arguments or “proofs” for it, or because it’s seen as the fulfillment of ancient prophecy – but instead, maybe I believe in it just because all reason and common sense and the smart money says that I shouldn’t, and because of that, I do, because that’s just the kind of person I am, and that’s just the kind of God I think God is.

To me, the resurrection would be the best, most effective way to put the world on notice that while it and its power thought it had the upper hand in the universe, God is always working behind the scenes and will ultimately play the trump card.

To me, the resurrection would also be the best, and maybe the most artistic way to affirm that we creatures formed from the dust of the earth aren’t just trapped in some unfortunate and ultimately useless and unimportant accident of evolution – but rather, that our having been created this way, life with skin and bones and warts and bruises is indeed good, and blessed, and what God intended all along; and that physical enjoyment in this world is also something good, and blessed, and planned.

And to me, the resurrection would also be the best and maybe the most poetic way to teach us all the reality of hope. It’s been written that the power of the resurrection is the power to plant the seeds of transformation. If resurrection is real, any kind of change can be real. Closed minds can open. Hatred can be transformed into understanding and compassion. Fear can be released and replaced with confidence and real security. If something like Jesus rising from the dead is possible, then so is stopping gun violence and police abuses of all kind be possible, too. If something like Jesus rising from the dead is possible, then erasing great swaths of racism and bigotry, and poverty and sickness is possible, too.

In short, I believe in Jesus’ resurrection because it would be the greatest single validation of the goodness of our physical lives here and the hope that solving so many of our problems is possible, and I refuse to give up that hope because I believe that God doesn’t want me, or you, or anyone, to give up that hope. So when Luke tells us that Jesus appeared in that room with his disciples, his friends, and he told them “Sit down; we’ll eat, we’ll talk,” and he proceeded to open up the meaning of the scriptures to them, and the deep truths of the faith to them; as rational and cynical and jaded as I am – on many days, anyway – I still believe it.

I believe it because I believe in the power, and the artistry, and the poetry that would be embedded in God using this ornery way to poke a stick in the eye of the powers of the world while simultaneously showing us how good, and blessed, and loved we are. To me, the idea that God would be willing to be so irrational, so illogical, to show me, and you, how loved we are is true gospel to my heart, gospel that we can all grasp onto in a world that claims to be logical and rational but that, as the news shows us every single day, ends up being anything but. I guess that in the end, in choosing to believe in the resurrection, and all the good news it would affirm, I’m not really choosing between logic and illogic – I’m just choosing which illogic to put my trust in – the world’s version, or God’s. And I believe – on most days, anyway – that I’ve chosen wisely.

Thanks be to God.

Doors and Windows and Data Points

(sermon 4/11/21 – Second Sunday of Easter)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

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It was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Any rational person would have done the same thing; you would have; I would have. The threat was real and undeniable; the power of the empire had had enough of the threat and challenge to their own authority that Jesus posed, and they’d arrested him, abused him, and killed him in the most shameful and humiliating way they could, to make an example of him to anyone who might even think of similarly questioning their authority. And that put Jesus’ followers directly in their crosshairs. The threat of death for them was very real, and waiting for them outside their door, out in the street, out in the public places, and so, on this day, just two full days after Jesus had been killed, the disciples were keeping as low a profile as they possibly could, hunkered down inside, behind a locked door, worried about the threat outside and wondering what was to come next. What would they do, where would they go, what would happen to their movement – what would it look like? Would it even survive at all, now that Jesus was gone?

But then, suddenly Jesus wasn’t gone. He was right there, with them, in that room. Somehow different, but somehow also the same, but in whatever way he was there, and very, very real. In the midst of their worry and fear, and their very real concerns and questions about their own safety and the survival of the movement, even through the locked door Jesus was present.

It isn’t hard to see at least some partial parallel to our own current situation in this story. We’ve all been hunkered down behind our own doors, and for a lot longer than just a few days, out of concern for a very real and potentially deadly threat that’s been just on the other side of our own doors, even if it was the power of pathogens and not the power of empire that we’ve been worried about. And in a very real way, we’ve had similar questions, too. What would our own present-day version of the same movement started by those disciples look like after we came back out of our time behind doors?

And it isn’t just the pandemic that’s given us pause. It’s more than just that. A recently issued Gallup poll shows that church membership has plummeted in the last ten years, more sharply and quickly than at any other time in our history. In 2010, about 70% of Americans were official members of a church, synagogue, or mosque; in 2020 that number had dropped to 47% – less than half of Americans for the first time since polling began. And that drop was seen across the board – in virtually every race, every age, every socioeconomic level, and across all denominations, liberal, conservative, or middle of the road.  A significant part of that drop can be attributed to a generational shift, where people are far more likely to participate in groups or organizations without ever taking the step of becoming an official member. This phenomenon can be seen in the full range of social or cultural institutions, from churches to museums to the Moose Lodge. But that generational shift doesn’t explain it all, or even most of it. What other polling suggests is that the drop is more related to the fact that the general public’s overall impression of churches, and church people, has turned increasingly negative. They see the church as a whole as a negative force in society; an institution that’s racist, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ; anti-science, anti-environment, and a host of other things that they see as just being common sense. Most of them have moved well past those issues, and they tend to see the church as a monolith, and a backward, obstructionist one at that.

There’s a term used in social science and political circles known as the Overton Window. The Overton window essentially brackets the range of issues, both social and economic, and from more liberal to more conservative, that are considered socially acceptable, without being considered radical or unacceptable at any given point in time. And of course, over time the Overton Window – the range of socially acceptable positions – shifts. In the last decade or so – roughly the same time church affiliation has taken that dramatic nosedive – social attitudes have changed even more quickly than usual, and the Overton Window has shifted accordingly, moving in a much more progressive direction. And what the general public perceives to be the social positions of the church are now very much outside of the Overton Window. The public has moved on, and they have the impression that that the church hasn’t. They perceive the church to hold views that just aren’t any longer within the Overton Window – that we aren’t just failing to realistically address the issues inside that window, we’re stuck wasting time arguing about the color of the curtains – we’re missing the whole point.

But here’s the rub: in another recent survey, this one by PRRI, it turns out that in the U.S. there are actually some 35 million Christians, spread across all traditions and denominations, that are consistently progressive regarding those particular hot-button social issues that the public sees as dealbreakers. And there are only about 17 million Christians that are consistently conservative regarding those same hot-button issues. That’s right – in this country there are almost twice as many consistently progressive Christians as there are consistently conservative ones. That might come as a surprise to you.

So where am I going with all of this? What’s my point? Just this:

While we’re still behind our locked doors right now, and we’re starting to wonder what a post-Covid church will, or should, look like; or even, given that scary-sounding Gallup poll, if we’re even going to survive at all; we need to remember a few very important things. First, our situation today isn’t anywhere near as dire as it was for those disciples gathered together on that first Easter Sunday evening. But Christ was present with them. He comforted them. He inspired them, emboldened them; he breathed the Spirit upon them; he gave peace to them. Remember, friends, that Christ is with us in every bit as real a way as he was with them, and he is offering us the very same comfort, and strength, and inspiration, and peace.

The other thing that Jesus did with those disciples was that he told them that at the right time, they were going to have to leave that room. They were going to have to go out, and tell their story, tell their truth. They were going to have to share the good news with others. That would come with challenges and setbacks, to be sure, but that he would always be with them, and because of that, they would succeed. They did eventually do that, on Pentecost Sunday, and in spite of how dark things looked on that Easter Sunday evening, when they did go out, they changed the world forever.

When we similarly come out from behind our own locked doors and come back out into the world, the same risen Lord will be dwelling with us, and empowering us, and emboldening us. We’ll have the ability to proclaim our story, our truth; the same good news of God’s love for all people; of God’s embrace and compassion for all people. And we’ll have the ability to share with others – our friends, neighbors, coworkers, others, whoever – that this good news includes the truth that God stands for – and contrary to what they might have thought, that the church; at least *our* church, believes that this good news includes:

  • caring for the poor and suffering and sick; and working to end the systems that cause their poverty and suffering and sickness;
  • demanding justice and equity for people of all races, and working to end the systems that cause those injustices;
  • extending the full dignity, acceptance, equal rights, and equal protection under the law, for people of every sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity; including marriage equality and full equality in the life and leadership of the church;
  • compassion for all those who are fleeing to this country for their survival; and working to end systems that cause their suffering, both in their own home country and in our own.

As our doors reopen, and as our society’s doors reopen, be loving and be bold in sharing this truth about our gospel, and our church, and our beliefs. And all the while – and this is important – make sure that you point out that your beliefs about these hot-button issues are because of, part of, your religious faith, not in spite of them. And if the people you share that with seem surprised, maybe say “Even though I guess I can understand that, really, you shouldn’t be. But maybe you should join us sometime.”

With Christ, and with the boldness and love and truth that he empowers us with, we can change the world, too. And it will all start, as it did with those disciples, when we open our doors, and leave our rooms, and step out into the world again, on Pentecost Sunday.

Thanks be to God.

On This Morning, On This Day

(sermon 4/4/21 – Easter Sunday)

They took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her. – John 19 & 20 excerpts

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This morning is not like any other morning.

This day is not like any other day.

Because this day, this morning, beloved child of God, is the day, more than any other, that we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the great, eternal, divine truth of the universe – that God’s very being is love. God’s very essence is love. God’s purpose, and the purpose of all of creation, is love.

This day is like no other, because this day, more than any other, we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the great, eternal mystery – that in Jesus Christ, God entered our human existence to show us what love looks like in the flesh. God with skin on, love with skin on, it’s saying one and the same thing. And we celebrate that through Christ, we are not only made at one with God, not only made at peace with God, we are inextricably, inseparably united with God, the divine source of all love. And on this morning, on this day more than any other day, we celebrate that Christ has done this, not through some eternally mandated spilling of blood to appease some bloodthirsty God who requires the sacrifice of life in order to be able to forgive sin, as if God wasn’t great enough or powerful enough to do that without it; no. And we celebrate that Christ accomplished this, not by giving up his life so that God would have some literal capital, the resources needed in order for God to literally “buy us back” from Satan, as if God wasn’t greater and more powerful than Satan and evil anyway; no!. On this morning, on this day, we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for the reality that Christ made that oneness with God, that unity with God, possible for us simply by virtue of revealing the true fullness, the depth, of God’s love for us – God’s desire to be at peace with us, in relationship with us, and to share in our lives, in our joys and sorrows. Christ accomplished this by showing us the kind of love God’s love is – a sacrificial love that is deep, and broad, and often costly, sometimes even costly to the point of death, as it was for Jesus – but still, a love that is unconditional and unending.

And in the process of revealing that truth about God, Jesus also shows us what our love for God, and for one another, should look like, too. Our love must look like caring for one another, just as Jesus’ did. Our love must look like lifting up one another, just as Jesus’ did. Our love must include sharing table, and for that matter, everything else with one another, just as Jesus’ did. And yes, just as Jesus’ did, our love must always speak truth to power, standing up against exploiters and abusers and oppressors of every kind on behalf of one another, even when that comes at great cost, as it did for him.

This day, this morning, we recognize, and celebrate, and give thanks for, the affirmation, the confirmation, the validation, that God has conveyed upon us, through God’s affirmation, confirmation, validation of Jesus that was conveyed when God raised him up, on this day, on this morning.

So wherever you find yourself this day, however you come to worship today:

  • Whether you’ve come with feelings that you just aren’t good enough, not for others, or even yourself, let alone for God;
  • whether you’ve come with the particular fears and stresses that come with your age, whether that age is old or young; or the stresses and problems that come from finances, whether you’re rich or poor;
  • whether you’ve come carrying the burdens of being treated unjustly, unequally, by people and systems that view themselves as superior to you, and you to be lacking and worthy of their scorn or injustice, because of what you look like or where you’re from or who you love or how much you earn or where you went to school or if you went to school or for any other reason – in other words, whether you’re being treated unjustly simply because of *who God has created you to be*;
  • whether you’ve come mourning loss – loss of loved ones, loss of security, of opportunity, of health, of mobility, of independence, loss of a year’s time with family and friends; whatever;
  • or whether you come today filled with a spirit of contentment, comfort, peace, and gratitude;

Where*ever* you find yourself, how*ever* you’ve come to this morning, this day, take heart.

Take heart; be at peace; be filled with love and joy, because when God rolled back the stone from Jesus’ tomb, when God raised Jesus from the dead, it was indeed that eternal validation that Jesus’ life was true. That his words were true. That the good news, the gospel that he proclaimed of God’s love for all people; the same gospel that you have believed, and trusted in, and professed in our own lives and words and deeds – that gospel is true.That is the great truth that this morning, this day, gives witness to.

Take heart, and be filled with joy, because in Jesus’ resurrection, God shows you, and me, that God didn’t just dwell among us for a few years two thousand years ago, but rather, God dwells with us still. God dwells with us, and within us, and loves us just as we are, just as we come, now and for all time.

Take heart, and be filled with joy, knowing that God’s raising Jesus from the dead affirms that God will never abandon you. Knowing that whatever your happiness and joy, God will celebrate with you; God will sing with you; God will dance with you. And knowing that whatever your suffering and trials, God will walk with you; God will strengthen you; God will comfort you; and God will share in your suffering.  

God’s raising Jesus from the dead is the great eternal “Yes” to love, and life, and all that is good, in other words, all that is of God; and it is the loud, bold, unshakeable “No” to anything that would oppose it.

So yes, beloved child of God, take heart. Recognize, and celebrate, and be grateful for this day, this morning, for this good news of resurrection for you, and for me, and for all people. Celebrate this day, because on this day, more than any other, we joyfully remember and proclaim that Christ is risen – he is risen indeed!

Going In and Coming Out

(sermon 3/28/21 – Palm Sunday)

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 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! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Three years. For three long years, as Jesus went from place to place with his disciples, he sternly warned them, and others, not to refer to him as the messiah. It happens so often in the Gospel according to Mark that it’s come to be known in theological circles as “The Messianic Secret” – Jesus’ commanding his followers to maintain silence about his messianic identity or mission.

But now, on this particular day, everything changes. On this day, the occasion of Jesus’ short little two-mile donkey ride from the little village of Bethany on the Mount of Olives, down into the valley, and back up into the city of Jerusalem. The event known as Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into the city, when as we all know, the people laid down their garments in front of him and laid branches down, giving him the cultural equivalent of the red carpet treatment on his journey; things done for the arrival of a king. And as they did, they called out “Hosanna!”, which is Aramaic for “Save, rescue us, savior!” and quoting scripture related to the coming of the messiah. The very fact that Jesus was entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives was itself an enactment of a scriptural prophecy that the new messianic age would be ushered in when the messiah entered Jerusalem from there. And the fact that he rode in on a donkey was another scriptural reference.

Today, whether we care to admit it or not, we’re all conscious of our image. It shapes how we dress, what we eat, where we go when we’re able, what we say, what we post on social media, what we do in our spare time and with who – consciously or unconsciously, we all use these things to create an image of ourselves; to craft how we want others to perceive us, and assuming we aren’t trying to create a false image of ourselves, there’s nothing wrong about doing that; it’s perfectly natural. Jesus was doing the exact same thing here, in this event. All in all, in every detail about his journey, Jesus was carefully and intentionally putting the imagery, the place, the time, together in a way to make clear to anyone that he was absolutely claiming to be the messiah. There was no more “messianic secret” after this. Jesus’ going in to the city was essentially his coming out as the messiah.

But after riding into the city to all the acclaim of the crowd, and through it coming out in his claim to be the messiah, Jesus did something odd. Not only does he not drive out the Romans and establish a new, physical messianic kingdom in Jerusalem, as the people were hoping for and expecting, frankly, he doesn’t do anything particularly momentous at all. Mark tells us that he went to the Temple, looked around a bit, and then literally came out of Jerusalem, heading back to Bethany. The overturning of the moneychangers’ tables will have to wait for another day according to Mark’s gospel. First, after making this very bold, and to be honest, this very in-your-face statement in front of the Romans and the Jewish religious and social power structure, Jesus went back out into the suburbs to get a good night’s rest, maybe taking some time to pause and reflect on the events of the day, and what comes next.

People have commented on how unexpected, even odd, this seems on Jesus’ part. But maybe, by doing this, Jesus is making a statement that yes, he’s the messiah, but not the kind most of the people were waiting for. As Jesus was taking time to reflect on the day and its meaning, a lot of other people undoubtedly were, too, and maybe that was his whole intention; another part of his carefully orchestrated day.

In the church year, Palm Sunday is the sixth Sunday in Lent, signaling essentially the beginning of the end of the season as we move into Holy Week. Once again this year, we’ve gone in to Lent, made this journey of reflection, repentance, preparation, as we consider the coming of the cross and the resurrection; what Jesus’ essence and meaning actually is; what his story is; and what our own place in that story is, too. And now, we’re about to come out of it, similar to Jesus’ coming back out of Jerusalem. As we do, in the midst of the joy that this day, Palm Sunday, usually brings, it’s probably a good thing for us to take another moment to reflect, too. Another reflection of Lent, of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection; all of the events that we’ll remember this week. A reflection of what difference it makes in our own lives.

Just as with all of you individually, it’s the same for us together, as the church. And not just in terms of going into and coming out of the annual Lent/Easter season in the church calendar. This year, in addition to that, together we’ve all gone into Covid life – this time of lockdowns and isolation and separation and sickness and depression and death. A time of real sadness and loss in both quantity and quality of human existence. And now, with vaccines rolling out and the ability to at least see some light at the end of the tunnel, and as we announced today, a target date for resumption of at least limited in-person worship, we’re finally starting to come out of Covid time. This Easter, I’m sure that will be a bit part of the prayers of gratitude that many of us offer up.  

But as we do start to come out of all of that, it should also be a time of reflection for us together as Christ’s church. This isn’t a new thought; you’ve heard me talk about this before on various Sundays, but now as the pandemic endgame is getting closer, we need to reflect on what this has all meant to us, and where we go from here. What has this past year taught us about what’s really important in our lives, compared with what we might have been prioritizing? What have we learned about ourselves – our assumptions, our familiar patterns, our own resilience? Has any of this deepened our faith and trust in God? For that matter, has it weakened it?

Has any of this experience led us to make changes in our lives that have been for the better, and that will change the way we live long after face masks and hand-sanitizer skin is just a memory? And for us together, as the church, what will we have learned about how we’re the church? How we minister to people in ways that are accessible and inclusive, maybe in forms of inclusivity that we haven’t traditionally thought of, and regardless of their, or our, physical constraints or location? How do we best reach out, in 2021 and beyond,  to share the good news with others? And for that matter, has our understanding of just what the good news is changed? Historical forces converged in 2020 in a way that it rarely does, and in a way that has reframed our minds, as individuals and as the church, about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus, the one who was anything but subtle and deferential in the way he entered Jerusalem Has our shared experience – has our shared suffering this past year-  given us a new understanding of, a new empathy for, the suffering of many in our society? Have we gained a new empathy for people who are only a single paycheck away from financial ruin? Have we gained a new empathy for people who don’t have access to healthcare? Have we gained a new empathy for people who battle with depression or other emotional or mental health issues? Have we gained a new understanding and empathy for those in our society who are asking, demanding, that we, as followers of Jesus, actually live into the fullness of his teachings as we live our lives and help to shape our culture?

We’ve gone in to an almost unprecedented time of social, cultural, and yes, religious, upheaval over the past year. Now, as we begin to come out of it, will it have been in vain? Will we have used this time and experience to learn something from it, about ourselves, about others; about our faith, our church, our society? And if we have gained new understanding, will we have the same courage that Jesus showed on that first Palm Sunday? Will we move forward in love and compassion, committed to applying what we’ve learned?

The original ending of Mark’s gospel was apparently lost to the ages, and a newer, later one had to be written and added to it in order to put some closure to the gospel as we read it today. Our own ending, our answer to the questions that this time puts in front of us, isn’t written yet. But through trust in God’s Spirit, and through trust in Christ, our Savior, I’m hopeful that the ending of our story is going to be a good one.

Thanks be to God.

Seeing Jesus

Photo by Mark Aaron Smith on Pexels. Used with permission.

(sermon 3/21/21 – Fifth Sunday in Lent B)

John 12:20-36

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

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You might not have noticed yet, but this past week we started doing something new. We’re trying to add new content on our Facebook page every day; that way, if you like or follow the church on Facebook you’ll be notified of something going on with us on your timeline every day. Of course, some of this we were already doing. On Mondays, we’d already been posting a text version of the sermon from the day before. Every Wednesday is our Morning Prayer livestream; Fridays you get the weekly announcements email and the sermon preview; and Sunday, we’re worshiping together. In addition to those, now on Saturdays we’re publishing a preview of the music that will be part of the following day’s worship, including maybe who’s performing, what the music is, and maybe a little bit of the history of some of the music. And now on Tuesdays we’re featuring “Tell Us Tuesdays.” A lot of organizations and places do this same thing. Basically, it’s asking some question and having people to share their answers or thoughts about it. The questions aren’t anything hard – I promise we’ll never ask anything that requires advanced calculus – they’re just meant to be something interesting, thought-provoking, lighthearted, and hopefully fun, and something that might allow us all to get to know one another a little bit better.

This first Tell Us Tuesday, we started basic and offered a slightly tweaked version of a commonly-asked question. We asked, if you had a magic superpower that enabled you, once a week, to have lunch with anyone at all, living or dead, who would you pick for your first week’s lunch, and why? And as a follow-up, who might you have the second week’s lunch with? We got several good and interesting answers. One person said that they’d pick Jesus, because it would be a fascinating and deep conversation, and boy did they have a lot of hard-hitting and important questions for him.

It’s an answer that a lot of people offer when this question is asked. You might even remember that George W. Bush was asked a variation on this same question during a presidential campaign – what historical person would you most like to meet – and he gave that same answer, prompting some people to worry that he was “too religious” for the job. Whatever else George Bush’s merits or flaws, I don’t think that his answer to that particular question was really anything to hyperventilate over, since an awful lot of people would, and have, said the very same thing. In fact, I don’t have any statistical data to prove it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if, in fact, that wasn’t the single most popular answer to that question, at least within the primarily Christian West. It’s simply true – a lot of people want to see Jesus.

In fact, that’s exactly how today’s gospel text begins, too. Some Greeks had come to Philip, asking to see Jesus. They didn’t ask Philip * about* Jesus. They didn’t ask for a brochure. They didn’t want a link to his website or podcast; they wanted the real thing. They wanted to really, truly encounter him, up close and personal, in the flesh. So as you heard, Philip and Andrew went to Jesus and tell him that there are some Greeks there who want to see him. But then, Jesus starts in on a dissertation about how a grain of wheat has to lose its life in order to be reborn, to grow, and sprout into something bigger and better than itself. Now, we know that in a literal, scientific way, a seed doesn’t actually “die” in order to grow, but Jesus is speaking metaphorically, poetically, here, so let’s grant him a little leeway. After he says that, he continues on about how anyone who would be his follower would have to do something similar; and cryptically saying that he himself has to do the same sort of thing.

From a broader theological and literary standpoint, people have said that this appearance of the Greeks seeking Jesus, and Jesus’ answer, is meant to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ mission beyond Judaism and extending outward to include the Gentile world as well. That’s likely true. But on a more basic level, asking Jesus if he’d see the Greeks who were there, and getting Jesus’ dissertation, I could imagine Philip and Andrew looking at each other and asking Jesus, “So… is that a yes or a no?” Jesus seems to ignore their question completely. But given a second look, maybe that isn’t the case at all. Maybe his response is precisely an answer to the Greeks.

Maybe Jesus is saying “Do you want to see me – to really see me? Look around you. Wherever and wherever you see someone giving of themselves; whenever you see someone who isn’t afraid to risk themselves in order to help, to achieve something bigger, greater than themselves, something that will benefit many more people than just themselves – whenever you see that, you’ve already really, truly seen me. You’ve encountered me. You’ve experienced me.”

Maybe Jesus was saying to them “You have the luxury of wanting to see me while I’m still here in the flesh – a mere circumstance of time and place, for you and me both. But there will be others to come, many others, who will want to see me but who won’t have that luxury. So that’s my answer to anyone, anytime, who wants to truly see me. Any time you see a person willing to put themselves on the line, in a place of risk, anyone willing to put themselves in that place of insecurity that comes from considering the lives and needs of others ahead of their own, you’re seeing me. You’re seeing my very essence, my eternal being and meaning and message, all of it existing since before creation and existing throughout the cosmos and all space and time. It’s an eternal truth: if you see someone doing that, then you are really, truly seeing me. And you are really, truly seeing a follower of me, even if the person themselves would never identify themselves that way, even if they’d be upset hearing that description of themselves. Still, that’s the eternal truth.”

Maybe that’s what Jesus was saying. Maybe in Matthew 25, he’s saying the same thing about where anyone can see Jesus, and what it means to be a follower of him. Maybe.

And maybe Jesus’ words here make the Lord’s Supper all the more poignant a way of being really, truly in communion with him, really, truly united spiritually with him – the one who died and was raised from the dead; resurrected, reborn, for the good of all the world. Think of the everyday, common elements that we use for Communion: A grain of wheat dies, grows, and becomes something greater than itself, life-sustaining bread. A grapeseed dies, grows, and becomes something greater than itself, life-enriching wine. What better way to express this eternal truth of how, and where, and in what, we encounter, experience, see, Jesus?

Given that possibility of how and where we might see Jesus ourselves, I invite you this week to think about your own lives, and to remember where, and in what circumstances, and in whom, you’ve actually seen Jesus. Where have you unwittingly found yourself on holy ground, marveling at being in the presence of the divine – when you’ve seen someone selflessly giving of themselves for someone else’s benefit? And maybe as a follow-up, can you think of any time in your life when maybe someone else saw Jesus when looking at you?

Come to think of it, that might be a good question for this week’s #TellUsTuesday.

Thanks be to God.

“Who Does He Think He Is?!!”

(sermon 3/7/21 – Third Sunday in Lent)

John 2:13-22  

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

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When you think about all the various art forms – painting, sculpture, music, dance – it might sound funny, but I think that the art of storytelling is one of the highest and most important of art forms in any culture. The fact that a gifted storyteller can come from any social level within that culture, and have any level of education or even no formal education at all, seems to make the art of weaving an intriguing, meaningful, powerful art form.

When we read the scriptures, we benefit from many gifted storytellers, originating in many different settings and scattered across more than a thousand years, and the author of John, the Fourth Gospel, is maybe one of the most gifted of them all. This author sets out to tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and his meaning, just as the other three gospel writers did, but John does it in a very different way, and he means to convey a very different, even cosmic, message than the others set out to do. This is the case even when John is weaving, crafting, composing his story using the same building blocks, the same stories coming out of the life of Jesus that those others used.

Today’s gospel text is a case in point. This is a story we’re all familiar with – this story of Jesus entering the Temple courtyards and driving out the animals and the people selling them; and turning over the tables of the money changers. It’s the only story in any of the gospels where Jesus, in a state of anger, a state of righteous wrath, commits any kind of vandalism, and even violence, against anyone.

And that’s exactly where the story gets so much of its appeal, its attraction, to such a broad range of people, because it describes Jesus engaging in these kinds of acts that so many of us, at one point or another, and truth be told, more than just once, have felt like engaging in in similar times of anger. This story has been held up by followers of Jesus across virtually the entire spectrum of Christian belief, except for absolute pacifists, I suppose; they get a pass on this – but virtually every other type of Christian since the beginning of the faith itself, as a justification for them at least occasionally engaging in the same kind of destruction and violence, in the name of God and whatever they believe was God’s will in some instance. Christians, from the most conservative to the most progressive, and everywhere in between, have held up this story as an argument to justify their own actions.

And it isn’t just individuals, but larger groups, too, even entire peoples. In Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, one of the most important speeches in U.S. history, Lincoln points out the irony, and the oddity, seen in the people on both sides of the ongoing Civil War – that “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”  It wasn’t the first time that had happened in history, and it certainly wasn’t the last. We human beings have claimed God’s approval of our own supposedly righteous use of violence, and often cited this story from Jesus’ life, to justify everything from the Crusades; to Nazis with their belt buckles that stated Gott Mit Uns/”God with Us”; to our use of the atomic bomb; to the bombing of black churches, “liberal” churches, and abortion clinics; to left-wing extremists approving of the use of violence during anti-racism protests; to right-wing extremists driving vehicles through Black Lives Matter protestors or shooting at them. 9/11 was justified as being righteous vengeance in the name of God; and yes, recent domestic terror attack in Washington DC, a number of people who stormed the Capitol Building on January 6 and caused the deaths of several people were marching behind a big wooden cross and chanting White Christian Nationalist calls to violence, all in the name of Jesus.

It’s here where I think John’s mastery as a storyteller is so important. We often hear this story the way the other gospel writers place it in their stories and what meaning they give it – it’s told as happening the day after Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem  during the last week of his life, and his actions in the Temple become the last straw in the eyes of the religious and occupying powers that precipitates his arrest and execution on Good Friday. But John places the story in a different place in Jesus’ life, very near the beginning of his story – remember, this is in Chapter 2 – and in so doing, he masterfully casts the story as having a very different meaning.

John nests this story in between Jesus’ turning the water used for ritual handwashing into fine wine at the wedding in Cana; and Nicodemus’ stealthy night visit to Jesus, during which Jesus lays it all out – that he has come into the world as a sign from God of God’s love for the world and as God’s means of reconciling with it. Taking these three bits together, we see John pointing to Jesus as the one who is already ushering in the new era, the reign of God, the new age – the new eternal, great “wedding banquet,” here symbolized by the actual wedding in Cana, and the fine new wine replacing the former ritual water. We see at the wedding that Jesus has the power to perform miracles, but in his actions at the Temple, John emphasizes the authority by which Jesus does those miracles and that as such, he has the divine authority to implement righteous wrath in the world; all while, in the Nicodemus conversation, boldly proclaiming not wrath, but God’s love for this world and all within it. In these three short scenes that John weaves together early in Jesus’ story, he lays out precisely who and what Jesus is, and what authority he has. To John, this isn’t just a story about Jesus going off on a wild tear in the heat of the moment and doing something that gets him arrested. It’s a sign of his true identity that sets the stage, that lays the foundation, for all that will follow in his story.   

It’s also confirmation that God, in this case through Jesus, is indeed a God who has wrath. Conservative Christians often criticize progressive Christians, claiming they focus only on God’s love and mercy, while ignoring or soft-pedaling God’s wrath. It isn’t really true; progressives believe that God exhibits wrath just as much as conservatives do; they just believe God’s wrath is reserved for, and directed at, different things.

While this story confirms that God can definitely know wrath, it’s important to recognize that based on literally everything else Jesus ever said or did, if that divine wrath, that righteous anger, were ever to be expressed through destruction or violence, that destruction or violence would be left to God, and not us. Christ has called us to be and to do a lot of things, but physically, violently doling out God’s wrath is something that’s very much above our pay grade, no matter who we are, or how much we might want that to not be true sometimes. When Jesus overturned the tables and drove out the merchants, people indignantly asked, “Who does he think he is?!!” From our own vantage point, we know that Jesus is God, but we also know that we aren’t.

The answer to the question of whether God might ever consider it acceptable for us to resort to violence, especially when appealing to the name of God while doing so, has been debated practically since the beginning of the faith, and it will continue to be debated long after we’re all gone. I certainly don’t know the fullness of God’s mind regarding that question, although I’ll admit that Jesus’ words and the full breadth of scripture seem to point in a much more pacifistic direction than in my very human, very fallible bones, I’m sometimes comfortable with. But wherever that debate  might lead, I still think that it’s inappropriate for us to include within it any appeal to this particular story of a violent day at the Temple perpetrated by Jesus, the eternal Son of God, as an argument or justification for us behaving in the same way. I think that the more appropriate takeaway for us in this part of John’s story is both that it points to Jesus’ identity, as well as pointing out some of the kinds of things that actually do lead to God’s wrath – in this case, it’s the economic exploitation of people – bad enough anywhere and anytime, but made even worse here, because it’s being done right at the Temple, right under God’s nose as it were, giving it the apparent cover of it being acceptable and justified in the eyes of God. A big part of John’s message in this story is a reinforcement that in Christ, we’re shown that God loves all of us, beyond measure and to the end of the age – that God’s love for all of us is so great that one of the things that most inspires God’s wrath is when any of God’s people are used or exploited by others, economically or in any other way, for that matter.

 In fact, if we read John’s wonderful, masterful story about Jesus – his life, his identity, his meaning – in any way that gives us cover to engage in vandalism and violence against any other child of God, then what we’re getting out of that reading isn’t the Word of the Lord, but rather, as Shakespeare might say, a tale told by an idiot.

Thanks be to God.

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.