Archive for August, 2019

Mark 1:21-28

August 30, 2019

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. Mark 1:21-28

From the internet: “On July 8, 1954, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a new song on the radio for the first time. It hadn’t even been pressed into a record yet, but when Phillips heard the tape that had been recorded a few days earlier at Sun Records, he wanted to play it on the air as soon as possible. It was the first time that the music of Elvis Presley was heard on the radio.

The switchboard at WHBQ lit up immediately with listeners wanting to know who this new artist was.  Phillips played “That’s All Right” over and over and tried to reach Presley on the phone.

Now, for the rest of the story: “Phillips couldn’t reach Elvis because he was at the movies.  His parents tracked him down and brought him to the studio for his first radio interview.  One of the first questions that Phillips asked Presley was where he went to high school. The answer “Humes” was a cue to the audience in the segregated south that the singer was white.”

Elvis, unlike so many other musicians who had their moment in the sun, wasn’t a “one hit wonder.” Neither was Jesus.

We forget that, in the 1st century, in the decades preceding the birth of Jesus, “messiahs” were a dime a dozen. Charismatic figures drew followers seeking a better life, seeking to oust Rome from Israel, seeking to establish the New Jerusalem on earth. And all of them, charlatans as they were, fell. Always discredited, often killed, all they left in their wake were disappointed and disillusioned followers – and Pharisees clucking “I told you so!”

Then Jesus comes along. And in the breathless, breakneck style, in just one week he has already arrived on the scene, been baptized, suffered in the wilderness, preached his first sermon, chose his first followers, cast out his first demon, and excited like the crowds like an ancient Elvis. Whew!

As I shared on Monday, no one knows for sure where, when, or who wrote Mark. Tradition says it was the John Mark who followed Paul. Very unlikely. And if it was, he learned the faith from Paul. Why is it then that Paul would teach Mark all sorts of stories about Jesus and yet, in Paul’s own writings, never mentions any of them? Answer: Because Paul wrote long before the gospels were written. Paul might not even have known many of the stories that appeared in the gospels. The truth is, we will never know with absolute certainty who, what, or when Mark was written.

But we can make a pretty good guess as to why! The big question that lies behind Mark is this one: What are we to make of a messiah who dies? And then come the inevitable other questions: How are we to understand it? Is Jesus just another charlatan? Are there still good reasons to follow him?

Interesting, isn’t it, that we still ask those same questions?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we want to imagine that you exploded into the consciousness of the world. Mark makes your introduction seem so quick, so easy. But we know your life wasn’t easy. And we know of the fickleness of crowds. We’re still that way. Thank you for making yourself known, for whoever it was who wrote Mark and thereby introduce you to us. Bless us as we follow your story, and as we follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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Mark 1:21-28

August 30, 2019

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. Mark 1:21-28

From the internet: “On July 8, 1954, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a new song on the radio for the first time. It hadn’t even been pressed into a record yet, but when Phillips heard the tape that had been recorded a few days earlier at Sun Records, he wanted to play it on the air as soon as possible. It was the first time that the music of Elvis Presley was heard on the radio.

The switchboard at WHBQ lit up immediately with listeners wanting to know who this new artist was.  Phillips played “That’s All Right” over and over and tried to reach Presley on the phone.

Now, for the rest of the story: “Phillips couldn’t reach Elvis because he was at the movies.  His parents tracked him down and brought him to the studio for his first radio interview.  One of the first questions that Phillips asked Presley was where he went to high school. The answer “Humes” was a cue to the audience in the segregated south that the singer was white.”

Elvis, unlike so many other musicians who had their moment in the sun, wasn’t a “one hit wonder.” Neither was Jesus.

We forget that, in the 1st century, in the decades preceding the birth of Jesus, “messiahs” were a dime a dozen. Charismatic figures drew followers seeking a better life, seeking to oust Rome from Israel, seeking to establish the New Jerusalem on earth. And all of them, charlatans as they were, fell. Always discredited, often killed, all they left in their wake were disappointed and disillusioned followers – and Pharisees clucking “I told you so!”

Then Jesus comes along. And in the breathless, breakneck style, in just one week he has already arrived on the scene, been baptized, suffered in the wilderness, preached his first sermon, chose his first followers, cast out his first demon, and excited like the crowds like an ancient Elvis. Whew!

As I shared on Monday, no one knows for sure where, when, or who wrote Mark. Tradition says it was the John Mark who followed Paul. Very unlikely. And if it was, he learned the faith from Paul. Why is it then that Paul would teach Mark all sorts of stories about Jesus and yet, in Paul’s own writings, never mentions any of them? Answer: Because Paul wrote long before the gospels were written. Paul might not even have known many of the stories that appeared in the gospels. The truth is, we will never know with absolute certainty who, what, or when Mark was written.

But we can make a pretty good guess as to why! The big question that lies behind Mark is this one: What are we to make of a messiah who dies? And then come the inevitable other questions: How are we to understand it? Is Jesus just another charlatan? Are there still good reasons to follow him?

Interesting, isn’t it, that we still ask those same questions?

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, we want to imagine that you exploded into the consciousness of the world. Mark makes your introduction seem so quick, so easy. But we know your life wasn’t easy. And we know of the fickleness of crowds. We’re still that way. Thank you for making yourself known, for whoever it was who wrote Mark and thereby introduce you to us. Bless us as we follow your story, and as we follow you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:14-20

August 29, 2019

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.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Mark 1:14-20

Mark tells us that Jesus’ first sermon was nineteen words long. It is the biblical Gettysburg Address. Most of the words are worth a sermon all to itself but we don’t have room for that so let’s quickly run through them.

“Time.” There are two words for time in Greek. Chronos is sequential time. It is watching the hands move on a watch. Kairos means consequential time, the right time, the critical time. It is that moment when the robbers hear “OK boys, the gig is up!” An alcoholic might think of the difference between “closing time” and the “time I got arrested and hit rock bottom before I got sober.”

The “kingdom” or the “reign” of God. These terms are among the politically subversive ideas in Mark. They signify God being the ruler, the one from Whom we take our marching orders, not Caesar. The kingdom or the reign of God signifies a relationship marked by loyalty, devotion, and faithfulness. This kingdom is “drawing near” in the person of Jesus. Unlike Caesar, God doesn’t use violence, coercion, or manipulation to entice followers. God uses love because God is love. We should always, by the way, be very wary of earthly rulers who “love” us and seek for us to “love” them in return. That’s how Caesar would have used that word. Jesus’ love landed him on a cross. Very different.

“Repent” means turning around, reversing course, changing our minds, and changing our ways. To “repent” isn’t “feeling sorry about your sins” – that is contrition or remorse – repentance is the recognition that the path we’re on is a dead end and we’re willing to stop and do something different.

“Believe” is more than being intellectually convinced that something is true. That is part of it but it doesn’t capture the full meaning. I always think about the analogy of a chair. Someone tells me that a chair will support my weight. If I didn’t know that before but now do, that is knowledge, the first movement of faith. If I agree with them, that is assent, but I still don’t believe. Only when I actually try it out, and physically sit down on the chair, which is trust, do I fully believe what they are saying to me.

To believe is to trust. It isn’t merely about our heads or our hearts, it is about our whole bodies, our whole being.

And the good news that Jesus brings stands in stark contrast to the good news that Caesar brings. It is the newness, the fullness, of life for all people which will be marked by love, mutual service, and “enoughness” for all. It is not about the dominance, the insatiable empire, the worldly adoration, that Caesar seeks. It is the difference between a local leader forcing all the citizens to line the roads to put on a good show when Caesar comes to town and an impromptu flash mob laying palm branches and their own clothing on the road to welcome Jesus.

Then Jesus hits the road. Two paragraphs later, he has four friends joining him in his mission. His missio dei – his God-given mission, mandate, and purpose for being. He has literally called his friends with the invitation, “Follow me” and they do. They immediately recognize that what Jesus is about is much more important, hopeful, and helpful than fishing for a living. Do we?

Let us pray: Dear Lord, let today be the day that we hand the wheel of our lives back to you. Again. Take us, use us, always to your glory and to the common good of all people. We know the allure of the dead-end roads we have been traveling. Count us among your followers. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:9-13

August 28, 2019

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. Mark 1:9-13

I never knew the date of my baptism until I was filling out the application form for seminary. Evidently, I didn’t need to know the date until then. I was able to live my entire life to that point, all those days since November 27, 1960, blissfully unaware of the date of my baptism. Should I have been surprised to admit that my baptism meant absolutely nothing to me?

Many years later, after my cousin moved into my Grandma’s old house, he and his wife went through all of the treasures that had laid long forgotten in her basement. They sorted the stuff out, cousin by cousin, and then one day a box arrived in my mail with all sorts of wonderful things in it. Including my baptism certificate. Only then did I learn who my baptismal sponsors, my godparents, were. Not a peep from them over the years. Should I have been surprised to admit that my godparents were absolutely meaningless to me, all that time, and since that time?

I have come to learn – first by going along with what my professors taught me and what I was expected to parrot from them, then by life experience – that my baptism actually was a pretty big deal. It was FULL of meaning. Lots of promises were made that day. Few were kept.

My parents promised to raise me in the faith. To see that I learned the basics of the faith along the way. To see that I was in church on Sunday mornings until I had a car of my own. My sponsors promised to help them with all of that. The church promised to be there for me.

Honestly, the only one that kept their promise was the church. For the rest of my life, in every place I have lived, I have been surrounded by Christian communities that stood like the prodigal son’s father, always looking down the road, anxiously hopeful that I would find my way home. And, with God as my guide, I did. And they told me, because God loved me, because Jesus died for me, and because I was baptized on a Sunday afternoon in 1960, when I walked through their doors, I was coming home.

Jesus public coming out party happened along the shores of the Jordan River. Like all of those other desperate people looking for something that their faith could hold on to, some reassurance that God wasn’t through with them, some promise that things would get better, he slogged through the mud, negotiated the slippery rocks, until he rested in the arms of John, who gently lowered him into the love of God.

The heavens were torn open – like the temple veil will be ripped in two when we get there later – and God’s affirming words thundered. Even as Jesus blew the water out of his nose, he knew, in his heart of hearts, he was God’s child. He was loved. His father was proud of him.

My father didn’t make it to my baptism. It was just my mom, the pastor, and his wife as a witness. But that wasn’t about God and it wasn’t about me. As far as God was concerned, and as far as I was concerned, I too was beloved. A work of art, crafted by the creator of the universe. That ain’t bad!

But life didn’t get easier for Jesus. It got harder. Baptism isn’t a “Get Out of The Wilderness Free” card. Baptism IS the assurance that, even when we’re alone in the wilderness, we’re not alone. And even though it feels like we will never get out of the wilderness, one day we will.

When will we ever learn that it is the wilderness that brings us the assurance of faith?

Let us pray: In your baptism, O Lord, you identify yourself with us. You don’t scold us from the front of the room, you sit in the desk with us. You don’t sit with the cool kids in the lunch room, you come back to the corner and sit with us. You might even have had pimples when you were a teenager. Through all these years, you are still with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:4-8

August 27, 2019

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:4-8

If I told you that there were two young men standing at your front door, just about to ring your door bell, wearing short-sleeved white shirts and ties, their bicycles parked on your sidewalk, you would immediately have an emotional response to the possibility of their actually ringing the door bell. You already know a lot about who they are. You might welcome them. You might not.

That is one side of the power behind the uniforms people wear. The other side is how the uniform helps those guys do their jobs. All uniforms work that way.

Mark’s description of John immediately (there’s that word again) gives away his identity. John is a prophet. One who speaks for God. One who interprets the present time, not one who predicts the future. But why are throngs of people heading out to the wilderness to get what he has to offer?

I believe that all four of the gospels were written primarily to Jewish audiences, knowing that those audiences might also include “Jewish sympathizers”, or people with an interest in Jewish faith or Jewish community even though they hadn’t taken the plunge of baptism or circumcision. And I believe that Mark was written after the destruction and devastation of Jerusalem (67-70 CE) at the hands of the Roman army. That puts it in the early to mid 70’s.

Times of tragedy and change, changes either for good or ill, always prompt us toward spiritual questions. Why did this bad thing happen? Are the gods behind it? What will God do about it? Is it our fault? Is it something we did or failed to do? The new Taylor Swift song, written as she was thinking about her mother’s cancer, includes the line, “Desperate people find faith, so now I pray to Jesus too.” I think that Mark was writing to a desperate community.

Why were the crowds streaming out to the wilderness? In part, they were recreating the story of Israel. The people of Israel in bondage in Egypt, called the cross the Red Sea, sent wandering in the wilderness, eventually finding a place in their Promised Land. That is their defining story. We also have a defining story as Americans, we just can’t agree about what it is. Is it the story that began in 1492, or 1619, or 1776? Because we can’t agree on our defining story, we don’t know what to do with ourselves today. But we’ll figure it out eventually. God never leaves God’s people in the wilderness forever.

So Mark tells us that the people went to the wilderness to be baptized by John – always the sign of death and new life. They sought forgiveness of their sins. They wanted a better future. They were willing to acknowledge that part of the answer to their spiritual questions was, “Yes, in lots of ways, you blew it. But God isn’t going to hold that against you.” That was great news, well worth a really long walk.

Then John says that there is still something better to come. Or better, someone better still to come.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, when all around us is shaking and quaking and all of the foundations of life seem to be crumbling away, we know that is where you stand ready to let us fall so that you can build something new in us. May we always welcome those voices that guide us to you, and may we live in the forgiveness of our misguided attempts to be gods unto ourselves. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 1:1-3

August 26, 2019

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Mark 1:1-3

The vast majority of Bible scholars believe that Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written. Further, most believe that the writers of both Matthew and Luke were holding copies of Mark when they wrote their versions of the Jesus story, each with their own purposes. John was written later and very much independently.

The rationale for this way of seeing things is pretty simple. Mark is the shortest book. Everything in Mark is also in both Matthew and Luke. That is the basic argument that Mark was written first.

Both Matthew and Luke make little tweaks to the stories they found in Mark. They changed them slightly, we have to assume, to improve the story for their own purposes. Some stories are only in Matthew, others only in Luke. This is the basic argument that each of the gospel writers structured and told their stories with specific purposes.

And there are stories that appear both in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. That is the argument that there was another written source, now lost to history, that consisted of the sayings of Jesus. Scholars call that source “Q”, from the German word for source, “quelle.”

Personally, I like the idea that, even in the first century, someone decided to write down the things they either heard Jesus say or heard that Jesus once said. Even then someone was more interested in what Jesus actually said than in constructing some grand narrative to structure some point they wanted to make.

Having said all of that as a basic background, today we begin our slow walk through Mark. Immediately – and you will come to see how important that word is to Mark – Mark tells us who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, not Caesar Augustus, who also claimed to be the anointed one. Jesus is the Son of God, not Caesar Augustus, who also claimed to be the son of god. And what Mark is writing he calls “good news”, using the same word that was used to describe the birth and coming reign of Caesar Augustus.

Certainly Mark is a work of spiritual writing but we simply can never put aside or forget that Mark is also a work of subversive writing. He tells us the story of Jesus within the story of the cultural and political realities of his day. I believe that tension is essential in appreciating what Mark had to say then and how that impacts how we hear his words today.

Further, by reaching back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in beginning his story, Mark is doing that very same thing. He is applying the language of his spiritual tradition to the cultural and political realities in which he lived. We are free to, and we ought to, do the same thing.

Mark’s story begins in the wilderness. At the edges. He uses the power of words. And the note he sounds is that something big is about to happen.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for the witnesses to the faith who have gone before us. To the writers of scripture and to those who so carefully attended to and preserved their words for us. Give us open hearts, open minds, open ears, that we might hear. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 28:16-20

August 2, 2019

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20

But some doubted…” Why did Matthew include that detail? Why do those words jump off the page?

These are the closing verses to Matthew’s gospel and the opening act in the future of the Christian movement. What does Jesus want his followers to do? To go into the world where they live. To make disciples by baptizing and teaching. I don’t think we need to be reminded that making disciples (those who actually follow Jesus in their lives by doing the things that Jesus did) is not the same thing as “signing people up to the membership list of a club.” Or maybe we do.

Jesus wraps his call to action with two reassuring messages. First, he opens with a reminder that he retains authority, and therefore accountability. He is in charge. He is the boss. It is right to respond in obedience to his commands. And then he closes with a promise, that he will be with them always, to the very end.

But some doubted….”

Those three words don’t change a thing about Jesus’ words to his disciples. They don’t change a thing in how Matthew tells the story. Matthew could have left those three words out and no one would have been the wiser.

Unlike the conspirators who concocted a story to cover their tracks, Matthew proves willing to tell the truth. Here’s the truth – for 2000 years now – many people have been so committed to the truth of Jesus that they have obediently done what he commanded. They have loved and served in Jesus’ name. They have walked with people to baptism and continuing maturity. They have created opportunities for Christian community to gather. And all the along the way, some doubted. More likely, all along the way, all doubted at some point.

Someone smarter than me once said that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, it is faith’s dance partner. Certainty is the opposite of faith. The question is never “Do I doubt?” but always “What happens when I doubt my doubts? Where shall I take my doubts…or where will they take me?”

Jesus has come to set us free. Certainty will never set us free. Only truth can do that. Truth that is a person, still with us now, to the end of the age.

Let us pray: Thank you Lord for those people who first brought us to you. Thank you for the songs and prayers that reached our ears long before we understood anything beyond how good it felt to be held close to our mothers or fathers. Thank you for the faithfulness of the saints before us to carry the message of your love and message to the world. Use us to do the same. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Matthew 28:11-15

August 1, 2019

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.

After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”

So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day. Matthew 28:11-15

So here we go again. Fake news. Cover your tracks. Want to beat a story to the punch? Tell a whopper. The more afraid of the truth you are, the more outrageous your story.

You’re missing a body? From a carefully sealed tomb? Guarded by Roman soldiers? Obviously, a tax collector and a couple of Galilean fishermen must have out-smarted them. Yeah, yeah, that’s what happened.

The priests and the elders were the ones who hatched this plan. Again, this isn’t about their faith. It isn’t about their Jewishness. It is about how people with power will do anything to keep their power. Truth? Justice? Love of neighbor? None of that matters.

Or maybe it does.

Maybe the priests and the elders truly were morally convinced that Jesus represented a real threat to the health and welfare of the people. Maybe they saw in Jesus, not just someone who threatened their privileged positions of spiritual authority, but someone who threatened the physical security of the people in their charge. Maybe none of them wanted to needlessly stir up the Roman tiger.

If so, they might have felt their actions were justified. But they were flat out wrong. History would prove them wrong. Thirty years later their fears would be realized but Jesus would have nothing to do with it. Thirty years later, a serious attempt would be made to kick the Romans out of Jerusalem. It wouldn’t end well. It would be devastating.

Two old sayings come to mind. “The proof is in the pudding.” “Sooner or later, the chickens will come home to roost.”

There is more than one way to appreciate this whole story. We can look at it from the point of view of what it tells us about something that happened a long time ago. Or we can look at it from the point of view of how it gives us insights into human nature. Either road takes us to the same destination – which story will guide our lives?

Let us pray: Lord, you are truth. Your Word is truth. Your way of being in the world is truth. Yet there are so many other voices clamoring for attention, clamoring to be heard, demanding to be obeyed. Keep us centered in the truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.