Monday, July 2, 2018

Desperate


Mark 5:21-43
July 1, 2018

            Desperate. Desperate is a word I probably take for granted. I probably overuse it. The lunch hour comes and goes and I don’t get a chance to eat, and suddenly I’m desperate for some food. My gas tank gets down to the lowest point it can go, and I’m desperate to get some more gas. I’m worried about having too much month at the end of the money, and I start feeling desperate – even though we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies and clothes on our backs.     
In an online dictionary, the first definition of the word desperate, an adjective, is “feeling, showing, or involving a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with.”
With this definition in mind, what does desperate look like? Desperate is going from doctor to doctor trying to find someone who can diagnose what’s wrong with your husband or your wife or your mother your kid. Desperate is sitting with your kids in the car outside of a police station, waiting until you see an officer, and then asking for help because you can’t go home. Home is where you might get killed. Desperate is taking your children and fleeing your home and your homeland because bombs are dropping or soldiers are marching or gangs are shooting. A few years ago, when a baby boy’s body washed up on the beach after he and his older brother and parents fled from the civil war in Syria in a tiny, un-seaworthy boat, Alice and I read a poem together as part of our worship service. My paraphrase of part of that poem is this, “a parent doesn’t put their child into a boat unless the water is safer than the dry land.” And a parent doesn’t take their child across a desert unless the other side looks safer than the home they’ve left.
The people in this story from Mark were this kind of desperate. It was desperation that motivated and drove them. When Jesus got in the boat in the passage we read last Sunday, he went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. That was the gentile side, the land of the “other.” Now he and the disciples have crossed back again to more familiar ground. It would seem from our reading of Mark’s text that the minute Jesus stepped out of the boat, he was met by a great crowd of people. The crowd gathered around him, and although Mark gives us no lengthy descriptions of the scene, I can imagine that it was noisy. That many people gathered in one place, clamoring for Jesus’ attention, would have been noisy.
Through the crowd came Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. As a leader, he would have had some status in the community. And that status would have given him some power and authority. Jairus could have easily sent someone to talk to Jesus, to ask for help, but Jairus himself came. Jairus must have pushed his way through the throng of folks gathered around Jesus. When he reached him, he did not tap Jesus on the shoulder or reach out to shake his hand. No, when Jairus reached Jesus, he fell to his knees before him and begged him, repeatedly,
“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”
We do not read what Jesus may have said in response, but we do know this. Jesus started to go with Jairus. The crowd followed. The crowd was so great and pushing, it must have almost seemed like an entity unto itself. The crowd pressed in on Jesus. Before Jesus could go very far, before he could reach Jairus’ daughter, another person pushed her way through that tight pack of people.
It was a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. At just about the same time Jairus’ daughter came into the world, this woman had begun to bleed. I cannot, nor do I want to; imagine how awful those twelve years must have been for that woman. As so often happens in the gospels, we are not given her name, but we do know that she had suffered much. She had endured much under the care of many doctors, but instead of getting better, she had only grown worse and worse and worse.
But here was this man; here was this man who had become known for doing wonderful things. He had become known, not only for his miraculous healings, but also for casting out demons and speaking about God in a way no one had ever done before. Here was this teacher, this rabbi, and the woman who had suffered for so long thought,
“If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
She didn’t presume to even look at the teacher must less ask, plead or beg him for help. She just knew that if she could touch his clothes, she would be made well. She was right. She was made well. She felt it in her body; she felt it in the depth of her being that finally the bleeding had stopped. But perhaps what she did not know, what she did not realize was that as soon as her fingertips brushed the rough cloth of Jesus’ robes, not only would power discharge from Jesus like a charge of electricity, Jesus would also realize that something had happened.
Even though Jairus’ daughter lay at the point of death, Jesus stopped. In that moving mass of humanity, with so many hands grasping at him, he stopped and turned around and looked and asked,
“Who touched my clothes?”
Who touched your clothes? Do you see how many people are around you? Do you see how many people are touching your clothes right now? How can you even ask, “Who touched my clothes?” Look! Everyone is touching your clothes!
But Jesus knew. And the woman knew. She must have been terrified. She must have been beside herself with fear and panic and worry. Not only had she snuck her way to a healing and been caught, she had also potentially made the rabbi and everyone else around her ritually unclean. Because you see this woman was not only physically ill, in the eyes of her community, in the eyes of the Law, she was ritually unclean. For the time of a woman’s menstrual cycle, a woman was in a state of spiritual uncleanliness; not to be touched. This woman had lived in that constant, unceasing, unrelenting state for twelve long years. Yet, she had risked everything to touch the clothes of this man because she wanted to be healed. Now she had been found out, caught. What would happen to her now?
Maybe she could have stolen away from Jesus through that crowd as quietly and as quickly as she had moved through it toward him. But the jig was up. It was better to come forward, then to hide. She came forward, trembling in fear, and fell on her knees before him. Jesus did not scold or reprimand. Instead he said,
“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
He had healed one daughter of Israel, but just as this was finished the news reached him that it was too late for the other daughter. Some people came to tell Jairus not to trouble Jesus any longer. His daughter was dead. But Jesus only kept going, telling Jairus,
“Do not fear, only believe.”
When they reached the house, Jesus only let Peter, James and John accompany him inside. Already the mourners had gathered around the little girl, weeping and wailing. Jesus said,
“Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”
Even through their tears and grief, they could not help but laugh. Sleeping?! Hah! Dead is dead. But Jesus ignored them. He sent them outside, and taking only Jairus and the girl’s mother and the three disciples, he went to where the little girl lay. He took her by the hand and said,
“Talitha cum,” “Little girl, get up.”
And she did.
Two healings. Desperate people. The power of touch. A desperate parent will go to any lengths to save their child. I know I would. A desperately ill person will go to any lengths to find some healing, some help. I know I would.
I’m not sure how to end this; because as beautiful as these healings are, not all desperate people get what they most desperately need. Not all children who are sick get better. Not all people who fight against illness for years live. Not all desperation finds a happy ending. No parent would risk putting their child in a boat if the water were not safer than the dry land. No parent would risk taking their child across a desert if the other side were not safer than what they left behind. But they are desperate. And as good as I find the good news, telling desperate people to just hold onto that is not enough. It does not seem sufficient. I don’t have answers for why some children live and some do not. But I do know this. We are called to see and hear and acknowledge and love the desperate people in this world. Not having the answers does not let us off the hook. We are called to love them, to see them as God’s children just as clearly as we see ourselves as God’s children. We are called to offer our hand, to do whatever we can do, because we are the Church. We are the body of Christ in this world. We are Jesus’ hands and we are Jesus’ feet. That is our call. That is our commission. That is our commandment. And if we don’t do it, who will?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Don't You Care?


Mark 4:35-41
June 24, 2018

            Adrenaline works. When my older sister was a toddler, she and my brother, who was a baby, and our parents, were at a church picnic. As toddlers are wont to do, she got away from the person watching her and started toddling off from the picnicking folk right toward a street. And on that street there was a car. I’m not sure which of my parents saw this first. But according to my mother, my father sprinted toward my sister and snatched her up before she could enter the street. Whenever she tells this story, my mother says that she has never seen my dad run as fast as he did that day. My dad and his brothers were all athletic, so I assume he was a fast runner anyway. But when he saw my sister heading toward the street, he beat any previous speed he had ever reached before. Adrenaline works.
            Adrenaline was also working when my dear friend Shelia confronted gang members with a bat on her front porch in Chicago. They were harassing a friend of her daughter’s who had been sucked into gang life, but had broken free of it. That was not an easy thing to do, and gangs apparently don’t forget or forgive former members. Well Shelia saw what was happening, and she grabbed her bat and marched out there and let them have it. They left. But here’s what you need to know about that bat. It was not a regulation size baseball bat. It was one of those small souvenir bats. It would probably have broken in two if she had swung it too hard, much less used it on someone. These were gang members, and Shelia reflected later that they could have easily killed her right there. But in the moment she didn’t think about her own safety. She was furious that these strangers were on her property, threatening this young man. Perhaps it was the force of her fury that scared them away, but she chased away gang members with a souvenir bat. Adrenaline works.
            Adrenaline is the hormone that is secreted by the adrenal glands, and it is typically associated with our fight or flight response to stress. I suspect that adrenaline was being pumped by the bucketful on that boat in the Sea of Galilee. In my mind the adrenaline flowing that night was practically visible as the boat was being swamped by the wind and deluge of rain from the storm on the Sea of Galilee.
I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like in that boat that night. Not all of the disciples Jesus called were fishermen, but the first four were. They would have been well aware of the storms that could turn the Sea of Galilee, which is really a lake, not a sea, into a raging tempest. If you wonder how it is possible that a lake could experience such terrible and dramatic storms, think about the storms that can generate on any of our Great Lakes. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot is not just a depressing song. It’s a depressing song about a shipwreck on a Great Lake. My point is this, like the Great Lakes the Sea of Galilee was subject to terrible storms, and at least four of the men on the boat with Jesus would have been aware of that fact.
So I can imagine that when the storm began and the water got rough, the disciples’ first response was not to wake up Jesus. Their first response was probably to try and hold fast through the storm. Maybe they prayed it would pass quickly. Maybe they thought they could continue to navigate and hold the boat aright. But that was not to be. Instead, the storm grew worse. The water and the wind and the rain were battering the boat that held Jesus and the rest of the boats that sailed alongside them. Maybe they tried to bail, but with that much water coming in bailing was pointless.
Finally, when it seemed that they were truly about to sink, to rest in watery graves, they turned to Jesus. Jesus was asleep in the stern. In the midst of that violent and wild gale, Jesus was sleeping, his head on a pillow.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Rabbi, Teacher, don’t you care?! We are about to go down with the ship and you’re sleeping?! I’ve heard of staying cool in the midst of crisis, but come on! Wake up! Help us! Don’t you care?!
Jesus’ response was to wake up and not just calm the sea. He rebuked it. He rebuked it just as he did unclean spirits. He rebuked the wind, and said to the sea,
“Peace! Be still!”
And with those three words, the wind stopped. The waters calmed. The sea was peaceful and placid once more. But here’s the funny thing, the terror that the disciples felt at the storm did not abate. Instead it transferred. They were frightened by the storm, but when Jesus calmed it, they were frightened by him.
I realize that the fear they felt over what Jesus did was along the lines of reverential awe. But they were still pretty scared. In a matter of minutes, the disciples moved from thinking Jesus did not care because he did not wake up to,
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Who then is this indeed?
Why did Jesus get into the boat in the first place? It almost sounds like a strange twist on the old joke about the chicken. Why did the chicken cross the road? Why did Jesus get into the boat? To get to the other side.
This passage, these last verses in chapter 4, begins with a simple phrase – probably one we don’t give much thought to.
“On that day…”
What had happened on that day? Jesus had been telling parables about the kingdom of God. Jesus had compared the kingdom of God, the reign of God, first to a Sower of seeds, then to a growing seed that grows and flourishes without much help from the person who scattered it, and then to a mustard seed that grows from the tiniest of seeds to a flourishing, flowering shrub that hosts birds of the air.
That’s what had been happening on that day. That’s what Jesus had been teaching on that day. Now it was evening of that day, and Jesus told the disciples,
“Let s go across to the other side.”
What was on the other side? The other side was the home of the other. They were heading to gentile territory. Jesus will leave the boat only to be confronted by a man possessed by a legion of demons, living in the tombs, in the land of gentiles. That’s what waited for them on the other side. They were going to the place where the other resided, a land, as one commentator put it, where no respecting rabbi or teacher would dare venture.
In between the land of the familiar and the safe and the people who were like them, and the land of the other, they face a storm so terrible it threatens to drown them all. And in this in between they witness a miracle. Jesus rebuked the wind and calmed the sea.
Why were they still so afraid?
How often have I said that if I had been lucky enough to have been in Jesus’ presence my faith would never falter?! How could the disciples see and experience the miracles Jesus performed, and still have such little faith? But I think this story is testament to the fact that miracles do not necessarily equate to stronger faith. I’ve probably seen more miracles than I realize, and that has not kept me immune from struggles with faith and doubt. And it was not just that the disciples witnessed a miracle of healing, they witnessed Jesus doing what only God could do. He rebuked the wind. He calmed the sea. He controlled creation. And yeah, they were scared. But who wouldn’t feel some sense of awe or imposing reverence that borders on fear in the presence of God? I think I would. I suspect some of you might too.
It seems to me that what happened in that boat was not just about a miracle, it was about a moment of recognition of who Jesus truly was and is. And in that moment the disciples moved into a deeper relationship with Jesus. They still won’t get it. They will struggle and fail and fear. But in that moment they sensed that this was not just about what Jesus could do, it was about who he is.
So where does this leave us? What does this matter for us on Tuesday? Is it just about Jesus being in the boat with us when we are swamped and afraid? Is it a reminder that Jesus does in fact care? Yes, but I think there’s more to it. I think this is a story about relationship. The disciples moved from what to who. They were touched by God’s presence in a way they could not have foreseen or completely understood.
Jesus had been telling them about the kingdom of God. Now they were going to the other side to see that kingdom lived out in a new way. And in the in-between, they encountered God in a new way; they crossed into a relationship with God they had not experienced before.
“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
They encountered God in relationship with Jesus. They crossed to the other side with him. They went to the land of the other and back again. What does this mean for us? It seems to me that when we find ourselves touched by God’s presence, that moment does not necessarily eradicate our fears. Instead, it offers us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. And when we go deeper into that relationship, then we find the courage to get out of the boat, to go to the other, to not only think about the kingdom of God, but to do our best to live it.
Why did Jesus get into the boat? To get to the other side. Let us follow.
Alleluia! Amen.

Kingdom Seeds


Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2018

            Whenever I am going out of town in the summer, as I did this past week, I try to make arrangements for my house, my cat, my mail and my plants. I figure that as long as the house and the cat are okay, the rest will take care of itself. I try not to get too stressed about my plants, but I hope that they will be watered – at least a little bit.
            I say that I try not to get too stressed, but that’s all relative. I have left home with plants that were blooming and thriving, only to return home to find them dead without hope for resuscitation. And I have not been happy about it. I’m trying to let go of that kind of stress though, because it’s just not worth it. Seeing how hot it was down here this past week, I didn’t have high hopes for any of my plants. When I checked this morning, there were a few that are on their way out, but hopefully my tomato plant will come back around with daily water and some TLC.
            That makes it sound like I really know what I am doing when it comes to gardening. But in reality, I have no clue. My gardening consists of planting, watering, and praying. A lot. Sometimes, that formula works, sometimes it does not. But every year, I convince myself that I will claim my mother’s green thumb gene that surely lies somewhere in my DNA, and make my garden grow.
            Considering my fingers-crossed-living-on-a-prayer approach to gardening, you would think these two short parables in Mark’s gospel would resonate strongly with me. But on first reading, the first parable especially frustrates me.
            “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
            Oh how I wish I could just scatter some seed, go to bed, get up the next morning, and repeat the process, and the seed would sprout without anymore effort or exertion on my part. Dr. Matt Skinner, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul wrote that at first these parables seem kind of boring. This first parable has all the excitement, he wrote, of an elementary school life science book. The seed is planted. It sprouts. It grows. And we really don’t know how.
            The second parable is not much better. First, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to seeds that are scattered and they grow without any tending or care. Then he spoke of the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed. It is infinitesimally small – the smallest of all the seeds on the earth – but when it grows it becomes the “greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
            Surely, that was a joke, right? Jesus must have had a great sense of humor, because the mustard seed produced a weed. No farmer in his or her right mind would ever plant it on purpose. When the mustard seed took hold, it grew and spread and infiltrated every corner. It might grow to be a great shrub, but I suspect that most folks would dig it up, root it out and toss it aside before it got to that point.
            Both of these strange parables were used by Jesus as comparisons to the kingdom of God. What was Jesus trying to say about the kingdom of God? What point was Jesus trying to make about our relationship to God’s kingdom?
            What is a parable anyway? Is it merely a story? A fable? A tale with a moral twist? The word parable comes from two Greek words, para and ballein. Para means “along” or “along side,” and ballein means “to throw.” So digging into this etymology, a parable is a story that throws the listener alongside something. When Jesus told parables, he threw his listeners alongside something else. A parable was not meant as a neat allegory; it seems to me that it wasn’t even meant to be a perfect example. Jesus told parables to throw us alongside something else. They were meant to be unexpected. They were meant to make the people who heard them think and see and consider in a new way. They were meant to give us a glimpse into a truth that perhaps could not be described or explained in any other way.
            Surely, this would be true of the kingdom of God. One commentator made the point that this particular phrase is so common in our religious circles, that we take it for granted. We want to see it as a literal place, a geographical point on a map, a destination to be reached through God’s divine GPS. But perhaps “kingdom” would be better translated as “reign.”
            “The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
           “The reign of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
            I like substituting the word reign for kingdom, but whether we use one or the other, what unexpected, twisting point was Jesus trying to make with these parables? What point, what message, was he trying to throw us alongside?
            The kingdom of God is like seeds that are scattered and grow, we don’t know how. Perhaps the kingdom of God does not just grow in a way we cannot understand, it grows in spite of us and our lack of understanding. It grows and sprouts and ripens whether we are involved or not. In verse 28, the word translated as “produces of itself,” is where we get our word automatic. It does it on its own.
            As seriously as I take our call to participate in kingdom work, it is good news to know that God works through us, around us and without us. God’s kingdom is not limited to our faltering efforts. God’s kingdom is like seed that is scattered and grows automatically.
            And what about that mustard seed? The kingdom of God is like a common weed that cannot be easily rooted out. It spreads and grows, and in spite of its small size, when it comes to fruition it is the greatest of all shrubs. Its branches are so long and so full that the birds of the air can make nests and take shelter in its shade.
            The kingdom of God, the reign of God, is rooted in our midst. It grows whether we contribute to it or not. The kingdom of God comes in the most unexpected ways and in the most astonishing and surprising forms. Jesus did not throw us alongside a description of a kingdom that is like the most beautiful and fragrant of flowers; Jesus threw us alongside a description of a kingdom that is like a flowering weed; unstoppable, unrootable. And in that weed’s branches, the birds of the air find a home.
            One more unexpected twist; even though the cover picture on the bulletin is a lovely drawing of birds in a beautiful tree, remember that in an earlier parable, the birds of the air were the ones who ate the seeds that did not find root in good soil.
            It seems to me that God’s kingdom is not just found in unexpected ways or manifests itself in the surprising forms; it also welcomes those people, those others, who are unexpected and surprising. It welcomes those who in other situations might be most unwelcome.
            Jesus threw his listeners alongside the unexpected and the unforeseen examples of God’s kingdom. We are thrown alongside them as well. Perhaps these parables are kingdom seeds in their own right. They are planting themselves within us, within our hearts, within our minds. May they take root, grow and flourish in unexpected, surprising and wonderful ways.
            Alleluia! Amen.

A House Divided


Mark 3:19b-35
June 10, 2018

            George Malley was an ordinary man. He was a good-natured good guy. An auto mechanic by trade, he lived in a small town where he had friends, where he was liked, and where he was well thought of. George was unmarried, but there was a woman named Lace – a single mom with two kids whose heart he was trying to win. She made hand-crafted chairs. He agreed to sell them from his store. No one else was buying them, so he did. He bought every one. That was the kind of guy George Malley was.
            Celebrating his 37th birthday with his friend, Nate, George leaves the town tavern and sees a bright light in the sky. George watches it as it falls to the earth. It is believed to be some sort of UFO, and after its appearance, strange things begin to happen. Strange things around George begin to happen. He learns a language in just a few hours. He breaks complicated codes. He moves a pen with his mind, and shatters glass the same way. He can sense when earthquakes are about to happen.
            George thinks that maybe this phenomenon, whatever it is, is a gift. Maybe he can help people. Maybe he can change some things for the better. But he scares people instead. They think he is out of his mind. They get angry with him. They shun him.
            It turns out that George did not see a UFO. It turns out that there was a tumor growing in George’s brain. The phenomenon was that instead of shutting down George’s mental processes, it was firing them up. Every synapse, every tendril of brain matter was alight. George Malley was not out of his mind. He was the most fully in his mind that any of us could ever hope to be.
            Some of you may have recognized this as the plot of the movie Phenomenon, starring John Travolta, Forrest Whittaker, Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Duval. If you have not seen this movie, I highly recommend it.
            Jesus did not do what he did because he had a tumor. Jesus did what he did because he was Jesus. But our passage starts with the words, “Then he went home.” Mark’s gospel does not begin with a birth narrative. There were no visits from angels, no heavenly hosts singing to shepherds in the fields. We do not know what Mark and his readers knew about Jesus’ origins and what they didn’t. And, let’s face it, regardless of what they knew about Jesus’ full identity; you know that there were neighbors who were going to only see Jesus as Joseph and Mary’s little kid forever.
            I’m sure I’ve told you this story before, but when I was first applying to go to seminary, I was seeking references from some of my professors from college. I called my teacher and mentor from the college radio station to ask him for a reference letter. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, then I said,
            “Mr. V., I have come to this huge decision in my life and I am going to seminary. Would you be a reference for me?”
            There was a pause, then he knocked the phone receiver against something, and said,
            “I’m sorry, what did you just say?”
            Because the Amy he knew, college Amy, d.j. Amy, didn’t quite fit the image of seminary Amy – not yet anyway.
            So Jesus went home, and the crowds that had been following him, followed him there too. They were so great, that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. Jesus’ family heard about this, and they tried to restrain Jesus, to rein him in. I can imagine them saying something like,
            “Jesus, what are you doing? What are you saying? Why are you doing these things?”
            I try to put myself in his family’s shoes, because they must have felt pulled in all directions. They loved Jesus. But they also had angry and disturbed neighbors and other folks telling them that their son, their brother, their cousin Jesus was out of his mind.
            “What are you going to do about it?!”
            To add to the chaos and the stress, the scribes had come down from Jerusalem, which if I understand it correctly, was not a quick trip. Jesus wasted no time upsetting the religious authorities, and they were watching him. I suspect they had people sending information about his doings to them. So there they were, on the scene. They accused Jesus of being Beelzebul, which was another name for “Lord of the demons,” or “Satan.”
            “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
            That was a pretty dramatic accusation. Jesus responds by speaking to them in parables, although these are parables that do not fit the norm of what we think of as parables.
            “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”
            How can Satan cast out Satan?
            It is almost as if Jesus was saying to them, “Think about it. If I’m Satan, how can I cast myself out?”
            But what about all this stuff about a house divided? What about Jesus’ words about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit and that unforgivable sin? That’s the part of the passage that worries so many people. I’ll be honest; it has worried me as well.
            Growing up I was led to believe that suicide was the unforgivable sin. It was the taking of one’s own life that was blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. With the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week, we have been given a powerful opportunity to talk about that. Why would a God who loves us enough to become one of us refuse to forgive someone who is despairing enough to take his or her own life? That makes no sense to me. I walk with depression and I have lost dear, dear friends to suicide. I cannot imagine God casting them out because they were suffering that intensely.
            Also, I’m paraphrasing Mary Bracy on this – without her permission, sorry Mary. The encouragement to those who are severely depressed to reach out is great. But we have to realize that when someone is suffering that badly, reaching out can seem impossible. We have to reach in.
            My point is this: despair is not the unforgivable sin. That is not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that what may be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is actually us trying to limit what God is doing through the Holy Spirit. It is us believing that those who do it differently are the enemy. Yes, Amy, I am preaching to myself. There are those who believe that I am not a “real Christian” because I am not “saved” in the way that they think I should be. But if I’m honest; if I’m really honest, do I think they’re real Christians because of the way they believe? I may have to say it through gritted teeth and clenched jaw, but they are believers too. A house divided cannot stand. Who am I to try and limit the Holy Spirit? Who am I to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit by saying who should be in and who should be out?
            When Jesus’ family came to him and wanted to see him, was Jesus dismissing them or disowning them or was he trying to make a larger point? They were his kindred. But his family was much larger than those he had by blood. His family was made up of those who did the will of God. There was nothing in his words about doctrine or institutional policy, just the will of God.
            A house divided against itself cannot stand. Who are we to limit the Holy Spirit? Who are we to decide who should be in and who should be out?
            Alleluia! Amen.

R & R


Mark 2:23-3:6
June 3, 2018

            Last Sunday when I was in Nashville, I went to church with Brent. His church starts at 11:00 am, fifteen minutes later than us. Phoebe called right when church was over here to tell me how our service had gone. Seeing that I was still in worship I declined her call. So, when we were walking out to the car, I called her back and said,
            “I’m sorry I couldn’t answer, Pheebs. We were still in worship when you called. How did it go?”
            Her response was not,
            “Church was great!” or “Everything was fine.”
            No, she said,
            “You went to church?!”
            I laughed and said,
            “Well yeah, why?”
            “You went to church?! On your Sunday off? I can’t believe you went to church!”
            I said,
            “Well Phoebe, I hardly ever get to sit in the pew and just worship, just be there. It was nice to sit with Brent like every other person and not be the one in charge. So yes, I went to church on my Sunday off.”
            She said,
            “Okay, I get that.”
            Then she proceeded to tell me how her Sunday here went. Thank you all for being so loving and supportive of her. Not that you would have been or done anything differently.       
Many of my friends on Facebook and other social media sites post pictures and memes that refer to the joys of reaching Friday. Finally! Friday is here again. They have reached the weekend. Now they can kickback and enjoy two days of non-work. It doesn’t mean they won’t have two days of busy activity, but it will generally be two days of non-work. When I hit Friday, however, I think
“Here it comes, the relentless return of the Sabbath.”
            Because, as we all know, Sunday – the Sabbath – is my prime workday. Many people think that this is my only work day. That isn’t true. But it is my primary one. Alternatively, while other folks moan about Mondays and going back to work, I’m like Monday! Six more days before Sunday returns!  Six more days before the relentless return of the Sabbath! When it comes to a day of rest and relaxation, Monday is my day. I try to protect my Mondays. That is my down day, the day that I recharge and renew. I do errands and other stuff on Mondays. But it is a day for me. Monday is my Sabbath.
            Yet, I realize as I say that that I am missing the point of what the Sabbath is supposed to be about. It seems to me that is the crux of our stories from Mark. The religious folks have missed the point of the Sabbath. Jesus cut right to the heart of this in verse 27 when he said,
            “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
            What did Jesus mean when he said that? Think back to what your Sunday, your Sabbath, was like when you were a kid. Blue laws were still actively in effect when I was growing up. That meant very few places were open on Sundays. My parents were not as strict with me about what I could and not could not do on a Sunday as their parents were with them, but Sundays were still basically reserved for church, rest and more church.
            When my parents were growing up, they were not allowed to see movies. My mother snuck in to see her first movie when she was 12. She saw “The Pride of the Yankees: the Lou Gherig Story” on a Sunday afternoon. While my mom loved the movie, and she couldn’t believe her parents had kept her away from this magical world of movies for so long, she also felt terrible pangs of conscience for disobeying her parents. So she confessed to her mother what she’d done. My gramma was more upset that she had gone to a movie on a Sunday than she was that she had gone to a movie. That was the Sabbath.
            But that again begs the question. What is the Sabbath for? Why was it created? The book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, tells us that after six days of non-stop creation, God spent the seventh day in rest – a model of rest for all creation. In the Ten Commandments, the Law, we are told to keep the Sabbath holy. Was this a pronouncement because the Law was an end in itself? Or did God make the observance of the Sabbath part of the Law as a means to another end? Was the giving of the Law in its entirety a means to another end?
            In Jesus’ time and context, keeping the Sabbath holy meant following a strict set of rules and regulations about what you could do and what you could not do. It had narrowed from a day of rest from labor and holy observance to restrictions and limitations. Although, Jesus and his disciples were not technically doing anything completely unlawful in their actions, they were pushing the boundaries of the Sabbath guidelines. Jesus had been pushing the boundaries since the moment he arrived on the scene as it were, so it is not surprising that the Pharisees and scribes and other religious authorities were paying close attention to what he was up to.
            But Jesus challenged the good religious folk on what the Sabbath was truly supposed to be about. What did it mean to keep something holy? Was it only to follow the rules? Were the rules more important than human need?
            Maybe that is what Jesus meant when he said that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. The Sabbath was made so that all creation could truly have rest – people who lived in bondage could rest from their labors. Even animals, who lived and worked at the mercy of the people they served, could have rest. If Sabbath was truly followed, even the land would have rest.
            And in the context of the Law, the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath was not just about rest and taking a day off, it was about relationship. Every one of the commandments is about keeping relationship – whether it is keeping relationship with God, by not worshipping idols – or with one another – by not coveting or envying what our neighbor has and we do not. We keep the Sabbath, not just so we can have downtime, but so that we can engage in worship, so that we can build community. We keep the Sabbath so that we can build relationship, with God, with one another and with God’s children in this broken, hurting world.
            To keep Sabbath is to rest so that we can return to the work to which we are called. To keep Sabbath is to see with clearer eyes the human need which is all around us. Jesus did just that. Jesus knew that the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not an end in itself, but a means to a greater end. The Sabbath is a day for R and R; for rest and relaxation, true. But it is also for restoration and renewal, for replenishment and revitalization. The Sabbath is our day for rest, so that we may go back out and work for the renewal of God’s world.
            Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Still Speaking -- Sixth Sunday of Easter


Acts 10:44-48
May 6, 2018

“To the Lord let praises be
It's time for dinner now let's go eat
We've got some beans and some good cornbread
And I've listened to what the preacher said
Now it's to the Lord let praises be
It's time for dinner now let's go eat”
            That’s the chorus to Lyle Lovett’s song, “Church,” off of his “Joshua, Judges, Ruth” album. It is a great song and it tells a great story. The story begins with the narrator telling about his trip to church last Sunday. The service began right on time as it always does, but when the scheduled time for church to end came and went, the preacher just kept on preaching.
            The preacher told them that before they left they needed to think about the judgment day. Everyone was getting really nervous, because they were all getting hungry. The preacher seemed to read the congregation’s thoughts, but instead of winding it down, he wound it up.
“And the preacher he kept preaching
He said now I'll remind you if I may
You all better pay attention
Or I might decide to preach all day”
            As the song goes on, everyone gets really, really nervous because they are all getting hungry. Everyone was so hungry that people were getting ill; old folks and young folks, little children and everyone in between. But that did not slow the preacher down one bit. But the narrator came up with a plan. He snuck up to the balcony where the choir sat and pleaded with them to join him when he gave the signal. As the preacher was preaching and preaching and preaching, he prayed for God to forgive him, then he stood up and sang,
“To the Lord let praises be
It's time for dinner now let's go eat
We've got some beans and some good cornbread
And I've listened to what the preacher said
Now it's to the Lord let praises be
It's time for dinner now let's go eat”
            Then he raised his hand and the choir stood up with him and sang,
“To the Lord let praises be
It's time for dinner now let's go eat
We've got some beans and some good cornbread
And I've listened to what the preacher said
Now it's to the Lord let praises be
It's time for dinner now let's go eat”
            With that a hush fell over the church. And the Spirit descended like a dove from up above and landed on the window sill. Then the dove flew down to sit beside the preacher, and a fork magically, supernaturally appeared in the preacher’s hand. He ate the dove. To the awe and amazement of everyone there, he began to glow. He was, after all, filled with the Spirit. Then the preacher joined in the chorus. And the moral of the story as we are told is that even the preacher gets hungry too.
            The narrator of the song and the Holy Spirit itself intervened to make that long-winded preacher stop preaching. Do you think the people gathered around Peter, listening to his sermon, were getting hungry too? You might say this is another story of the Holy Spirit intervening, although to be fair to Peter, this was not a long or drawn out sermon. But I believe that this was a sermon that was difficult for some listening to Peter to digest. What we read in our selected verses is the end of a longer story that begins at the start of chapter 10.
            A centurion named Cornelius, who was a member of the Italian cohort – which means he was most decidedly a Gentile and a cog in the wheel of the Roman Empire – was also described as a devout man. He gave alms generously to those in need, and he prayed constantly to God. Cornelius had a vision from God in which an angel of God told him that his prayers did not go unnoticed by the Lord. In the vision Cornelius was told to send men to Joppa to get a man named Simon who was called Peter. After Cornelius’ heavenly visitor left him, he did what he was told.
            The next day while Cornelius’ messengers were on their way to Joppa, Peter goes up on the roof of the house where he was staying. He went up there to pray, and while he was praying, he also had a vision. His vision makes for another one of my favorite stories from the book of Acts.
            In Peter’s vision, he saw a sheet lowered from heaven by its four corners. On that sheet was every animal that was considered unclean according to dietary laws. Peter saw that sheet and he heard a voice telling him to get up, kill and eat.
            Peter refused. He had never broken the Law. He had never eaten anything that the Law said was unclean. He had never put anything profane in his mouth. The voice spoke to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, he also said, “No,” three times. After the third time, the sheet was taken back up to heaven.
            Peter was confused by what he had seen and heard. While he was puzzling over the vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived. The Spirit told him to go with the men. Peter and other believers from Joppa went, and they met Cornelius. Cornelius tried to worship Peter, but Peter wouldn’t have it. He told Cornelius and the other members of his household who were gathered there for Peter’s visit that they knew it was unlawful for him, a Jew, to associate with Gentiles. But he had this vision from God telling him not to call unclean what God had made clean. Cornelius told Peter about his vision, and that is when Peter began the sermon that brings us to our part of the story.
            Peter was still speaking. I imagine him cut off by the Spirit, mid-sentence. Perhaps he was unsure of what he would say next, or maybe he had the perfect phrase rolling around in his head. But that didn’t matter, because the Spirit intervened. It fell on all the people gathered there. It fell on all who heard the word. The Holy Spirit was being poured out even on Gentiles. And as our verses say,
“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.” 
While Peter was still speaking, before he could finish a thought or end a phrase, the Spirit did its work. One commentator said that the Holy Spirit was the true preacher here. Certainly, before I preach every Sunday I pray not just, “Help me. Help me. Help me,” but also “Lord, let your Spirit work through my words and make them your own.” Some Sundays I pray that harder than others.
Yet what is really so amazing about this whole story – from Cornelius to the interruption by the Spirit while Peter was still speaking – is that the Spirit was not just being poured out on the “other,” it was breaking down walls and leaping over boundaries that we humans thought – and still think – are necessary. The Spirit refused to do what the humans thought should be done, and instead did the work of God. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit whooshed through the folks gathered there; it poured itself and its power out on the Gentiles, the strangers, the others. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit proved that God was also still speaking.
There is a famous story about Gracie Allen and George Burns. Supposedly after Gracie died, George found a note she left him. It read, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” In other words, don’t believe that you know everything. Don’t believe that what you think of as an end is really an end. Never put a period where God has put a comma.
This story, and indeed the entire book of Acts, shows us again and again and again that God was and is about the comma. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit was God still speaking, God still working, God still doing – breaking down walls and boundaries and divisions. The good news, the great and glorious news is that God is still speaking here and now. May the Holy Spirit interrupt and disrupt us today and always.
Alleluia! Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Out There -- Fifth Sunday of Eastertide


Acts 8:26-40
April 29, 2018

I waitressed my way through college. I worked at a little restaurant and lounge in Nashville called J.C.’s. The owners were John and Sylvia Ciccatelli, so J.C.’s stood for John Ciccatelli, but it also could have stood for Jazz Club; because along with great food made by Sylvia, we had some great jazz music. The session players whose day jobs were playing music for the recording industry on Music Row would play jazz at J.C.’s at night. Glamour Magazine even included a blurb about J.C.’s in an article about things to do and see in Nashville.
It was a great place to work. It was hard work; being a waitress is a tough job and don’t let anyone tell you anything different. But I made good money doing it, and I loved the restaurant, my co-workers, and Chick and Sylvia were like my second parents. I never thought twice about being a waitress: until I went to New York City for the first time for a collegiate radio broadcasting conference.
Along with being a waitress in college, I was also a D.J. and eventually the Program Director for my college radio station. When we heard about this conference, a group of us from the station drove up to New York to attend. Although there were some up’s and down’s on this trip – there’s another whole story and sermon hidden in that sentence – it was still a great trip. I met a lot of different people from all over the world. But one person stands out in my memory. I don’t remember this man’s name, but we ended up in a conversation about jazz. I told him that I played jazz at the station and that I worked in a jazz club on the weekends. I’m not sure what he thought working in a jazz club meant; but when I told him that I was a waitress, it was clear to me that he didn’t think much of that position. I got that impression because he made an excuse to stop speaking with me and walked away.
Why all this talk about waitressing? Because Philip, one of our two characters in our story from Acts, was essentially a waiter. Let me clarify that. Philip was one of those chosen by the apostles to be a deacon. While our understanding of the work of a deacon is shepherding and pastoral care, the role of the deacon designated by the apostles was table ministry. They were to make sure that everyone received food equitably. In other words, they waited tables.
But these early deacons did not stay within their proscribed boundaries. Another well-known deacon was Stephen who went far beyond being a waiter. He was empowered by the Spirit to preach the gospel. But preaching the gospel can get you in trouble. Stephen’s preaching so angered and threatened those around him that it cost him his life.
Now we come to Philip. In the early verses of this chapter, we learn that a zealous man named Saul approved of the killing of Stephen, and that he began a severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem. While Saul was ravaging the church and scattering believers, Philip went down to Samaria and proclaimed the Word of the Lord there. Samaria: an unlikely place for the Word to be preached and Philip, an unlikely person to do the preaching.
But however unlikely it was that Philip would preach to Samaritans, what happened in our story was even more unlikely and incredible. In fact our story is pretty out there, both literally and figuratively.
“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.”
I love how the words “This is a wilderness road,” is in parenthesis. It seems to be an aside from the author who is determined to let us know that Philip was sent by the angel of the Lord out there.
On the surface it makes no sense that Philip would be sent to this wilderness road because who would he encounter there? But if Philip questioned the angel’s words, we do not read about it. The angel of the Lord told him where to go, and he got up and went. On this road, this deserted stretch of highway, where no one should be, Philip encountered a chariot returning from Jerusalem. In this chariot was an Ethiopian eunuch from the court of Queen Candace.
Here is another part of this story that is out there. An Ethiopian eunuch was returning from worshipping in Jerusalem. Why was this eunuch from a land so far away worshipping in Jerusalem? He must have been a Jewish convert. But a eunuch would have not have been allowed to enter the temple because of his physical condition. Yet, he had been in Jerusalem. Even more out there, while he was traveling, he was reading a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. The court of Candace must have been well off, and certainly this eunuch was, because he was able to read and because a scroll like that would have been tremendously expensive. Out there!
Philip saw this chariot and was instructed by the Spirit to go over to it. When I read those words, I imagine Philip running alongside the chariot, trying to keep up with it as he rumbled down this wilderness, this out there, road. Maybe the chariot was not going that fast, or maybe the driver slowed down when he saw Philip approach, but Philip was able to see what this Ethiopian eunuch was reading. When he saw that it was from Isaiah, he asked the man if he understood the words of the prophet.
The eunuch responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
With that Philip was invited to join him in the chariot. The scripture the eunuch was reading was this,
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch wanted to know about whom the prophet was speaking: was it about himself or was it about someone else. With that Philip began to tell the eunuch the good news about Jesus. I think it is important to remember that we do not know exactly what Philip said. We do not know exactly how he interpreted this scripture to the eunuch. We are not given a set in stone interpretation. But what we do know is that Philip told him about the good news of Jesus.
Then another moment of out there happens. On this wilderness road in this arid and dry region, they came across water! Water! There was no probable reason for water to be there, and yet it was. When they saw the water, the eunuch – not Philip – brought up baptism.
“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Perhaps there were a myriad of rules and regulations preventing him from being baptized, but those did not matter. The chariot stopped. The two men went down to the water, and Philip baptized this Ethiopian eunuch right there and then. As soon as they came up out of the water, Philip was snatched up by the Spirit. The eunuch never saw him again, but he continued on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself in a new place, and without a look back, he went into the towns in this region preaching and proclaiming the good news of the gospel.
Out there; it is all out there. Philip, one who was designated for waiting on tables was used by the Spirit to spread the good news. An Ethiopian eunuch, someone who was the epitome of “other,” was in a chariot on a wilderness road reading Isaiah. Water, which had no business being on that wilderness road was there. Baptism, this “other,” this foreigner, this stranger with even stranger ways was baptized by this unlikely messenger. It was all completely and utterly out there!
But isn’t that the way of God? What we see in this story and, indeed, throughout the book of Acts was that God was on the move. The gospel needed to be preached, the Word needed to be spread far and wide, and God through the Holy Spirit was going to use messengers of God’s choosing to make that happen.
But if you think about it, all of God’s story, our story, is out there. In worldly terms it is completely out there, improbable and far-fetched. But isn’t that what makes it good news? What we think of as improbable and out there is really God’s work and Word coming to fruition.
This is good news. It is good news that God is still on the move. It is good news that the gospel still needs to be preached and proclaimed far and wide. And it is glorious news that God still uses unlikely people and improbable circumstances to make all of this happen. God’s good news is out there and we are called to be out there too.
Alleluia! Amen.