Archive for October, 2019

Mark 5:1-5

October 10, 2019

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. Mark 5:1-5

He must have an unclean spirit. How else do we explain it? Look at the things he does. He is out of control. He is a danger to himself and to others. Just think of the children! We need to get him out of town. Let’s chain him out among the tombs where no one else wants to go. Out of sight. Out of mind. Problem solved.

In their desire for their own safety, they didn’t stop to think about his safety. He was a danger. Especially to himself. Can you see his suffering? Can you feel his shame?

Some people read this text and they think about the various homeless characters they see asking for money at street corners. Or pushing shopping carts filled with treasures down sidewalks. Or camped out under bridges. I see my extended family. I see my mom. My aunt. My sister. My son. My daughter. Me.

We have come a long way in destigmatizing some forms of sickness. But others? Other forms still carry, in addition to the suffering of the illness, the added weight of cultural shame. There is no shame to many forms of cancer – except those people think they can trace back to “lifestyle choices.” No shame in diabetes – except when the person suffering from wounds that won’t heal is seriously overweight. It isn’t fair and it isn’t helpful but it’s there.

Sadly, there is no mental illness or addictive illness without shame. But there are many voices trying to turn that around.

Today is World Mental Health Day. This is an opportunity to lift up the real suffering that real people experience because their illness happens to involve chemicals in their brains and maladaptive responses to survive. I am grateful to know that many voices are being heard in the face of the terrifying statistics around suicide, overdoses, and the increasing dangers of new substances that change the way that people feel.

Can you see the man among the tombs? Can you see his scars and open wounds? Can you hear his cries? Jesus did.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, your children are suffering. They need help. They need care. They need treatment and ongoing support. We pray today that you work through the skills of mental health care providers to bring hope and recovery to those who suffer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 4:34-41

October 9, 2019

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:34-41

We know what the disciples were thinking….

’Why are you afraid?’ Are you serious? I’ve been on this lake my whole life and I have NEVER seen a storm like this one! I thought the boat was going down! I thought we would have to swim for it! I’m a pretty good swimmer but get serious, in THESE waves? Pardon my French, Jesus, but are you CRAZY!?”

“Besides all that, while we were bailing water like madmen what were you doing? SLEEPING in the back of the boat! You weren’t even helping us. We were going down and you didn’t even care!!!! ‘Why are you afraid’ you ask? Give me a break. I thought I was done for!!!”

When you live in Houston, you just sort of resign yourself to flooding. Hurricanes happen. Sometimes your part of town is spared. Other times it floods where it has never flooded before. You just never know. But you always know. The floods are going to come.

The wheels of the economy spinning backwards. The diagnosis you feared the most. The tragic accident and the late night phone call or knock at your door. Sometimes the winds blow and sometimes it’s a tornado.

When we find ourselves in those dark moments of life – and we are people of faith – we discover that faith doesn’t insulate us against the storms. Devotion shifts to desperation with disappointment just around the corner. We ask the age-old questions. Why me? Why them? Why now? Like the disciples in that boat, as we bail with all our might, we wonder if God cares.

Maybe we remember this story. How Jesus stopped the windstorm with a word. Then we look back at our life and we remember the times when it felt like the winds were stopped. And we wonder. Will there be a miracle this time? Or will this be it? Will the wind win this time?

Maybe the thing to remember in this story is that there were other boats on the lake that same night. The story said “other boats were with him.” It is just a little detail. But it does remind us that the disciples weren’t as alone as they might have thought. The story assures us that God does care. And that God is stronger than the wind.

We aren’t as alone as we think. God does care. God is stronger than the wind.

God does care. God is stronger than the wind.

God is stronger than the wind.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, when the winds blow in our lives, when we speak the fear that captures our hearts, when you seem so far away, bring this story back to us. Remind us that you are in the boat with us. That we are not alone. That you are stronger than the wind. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 4:34-41

October 9, 2019

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:34-41

We have a pretty good idea what the disciples were thinking….

’Why are you afraid?’ Are you serious? I’ve been on this lake my whole life and I have NEVER seen a storm like this one! I thought the boat was going down! I thought we would have to swim for it! I’m a pretty good swimmer but get serious, in THESE waves? Pardon my French, Jesus, but are you CRAZY!?”

“Besides all that, while we were bailing water like madmen what were you doing? SLEEPING in the back of the boat! You weren’t even helping us. We were going down and you didn’t even care!!!! ‘Why are you afraid’ you ask? Give me a break. I thought I was done for!!!”

When you live in Houston, you just sort of resign yourself to flooding. Hurricanes happen. Sometimes your part of town is spared. Other times it floods where it has never flooded before. You just never know. But you always know. The floods are going to come.

The wheels of the economy spinning backwards. The diagnosis you feared the most. The tragic accident and the late night phone call or knock at your door. Sometimes the winds blow and sometimes it’s a tornado.

When we find ourselves in those dark moments of life – and we are people of faith – we discover that faith doesn’t insulate us against the storms. Devotion shifts to desperation with disappointment just around the corner. We ask the age-old questions. Why me? Why them? Why now? Like the disciples in that boat, as we bail with all our might, we wonder if God cares.

Maybe we remember this story. How Jesus stopped the windstorm with a word. Then we look back at our life and we remember the times when it felt like the winds were stopped. And we wonder. Will there be a miracle this time? Or will this be it? Will the wind win this time?

Maybe the thing to remember in this story is that there were other boats on the lake that same night. The story said “other boats were with him.” It is just a little detail. But it does remind us that the disciples weren’t as alone as they might have thought. The story assures us that God does care. And that God is stronger than the wind.

We aren’t as alone as we think. God does care. God is stronger than the wind.

God does care. God is stronger than the wind.

God is stronger than the wind.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, when the winds blow in our lives, when we speak the fear that captures our hearts, when you seem so far away, bring this story back to us. Remind us that you are in the boat with us. That we are not alone. That you are stronger than the wind. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 4:30-33

October 8, 2019

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It 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.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” Mark 4:30-33

I really appreciate the words “as they were able to hear it” because that fairly well describes the journey of my life. It is connected, for me, to that other famous line that I recently talked about, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I think that is the way life works.

No one can be expected to do math until they come to understand the concept of a number. No one can find their way around a town they have never visited unless they have some sort of map or guide. That is just common sense.

How do we learn? We learn through a combination of experience and guidance. We need others to help us along the way. As they help us, and as we gain the experiences of our lives, our inborn talents and interests and curiosities emerge. We find our path. Hopefully, we keep on learning throughout our life. I would love to die still curious.

As I find myself thinking and writing about the word “faith”, I realize that that word has taken on a whole new range of meanings for me that I didn’t use to consider. I say “innocently” because I really was innocent when I used to think that faith was a thing that I could have more or less of. I thought I needed enough of it to please God. If I didn’t have enough of it, I would be in trouble. Like Peter sinking beneath the waves.

Honestly, it was the Bible that contributed to this way of thinking. Jesus says I need faith like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. That tells me, that when it comes to the thing of faith all I need is a little bit. Like Brylcreem—A Little Dab’ll Do Ya! But then Hebrews 11:6 pops up and says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” How do you have a little dab of that?

Think about that hard enough and you enter the eternal spin cycle of shame and confusion. Faith becomes one more thing to be compared in a culture that tells us that bigger and more is always better than smaller and less. One more performance to be measured and evaluated and judged and graded.

So how has my thinking been evolving? I realize that I have far too often equated faith with certainty rather than seeing them as polar opposites in constant creative tension. Faith is more about conversation than conclusion, more like a dance than a doctrine. Faith is more a way of being and a way of seeing life.

Faith thus requires both life experience and guidance. It both creates and depends on relationships to flourish. Faith opens life to us because it takes us beyond what we know to the good news that we are known. And so is everyone else. And we need one another to discover that together.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, open our hearts and minds to the reality of your presence and the guidance of your Spirit. Bring us to a new awareness of our part in your kingdom and help us trust that your purposes will be worked out in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

October 3, 2019

He also said, “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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

When you live in a big city, and you don’t have the room or the inclination to garden, you don’t spend much time thinking about seeds. Except when you are in school and they make you do the bean project. The bean project is a rite of passage for young people.

Remember how it worked? Your science teacher gave you a small bag of beans and a set of instructions. You were to plant them in little numbered boxes or cups and then experiment with them. Some got more light, some less. Some got more water, some less. Some you watered with Coke or something else. You measured their growth and you wrote a report and you were done and moved on.

You might not even have noticed the wonder of it all. How could it be that that seed held all that it needed – short of water and sunlight – to become a plant? And not just any plant. A plant that could someday produce seeds of its own. Even after your science teacher explained the math of how it all happened, it was still a miracle.

It is interesting how non-specific Jesus is when he is teaching about the kingdom of God. Truly, that is his main thing. From the very beginning, chapter 1, Jesus announced that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” You don’t have to know anything about kingdoms to sense how strange it is for him to use those words.

In the real world, kingdoms don’t move. They might expand as the king conquered more territory but other than that, kingdoms are places you go to, they aren’t things that come to you. So how strange that Jesus says that the kingdom of God “has come near”? There is something mysterious about that. He must be talking about a different sort of kingdom.

But actually he isn’t. Because, when you drill down through the layers of what a kingdom really is, you can finally only land on the word “relationship.” The relationship between the king and the king’s subjects and all that that means. Other words come to mind like power, privilege, loyalty, subservience, protection, identity. You don’t need land, a castle, or a crown to have that. They’re nice. They’re handy. But they aren’t the heart of the matter.

So the only way to understand how Jesus portrays the kingdom of God “coming near” is to realize that it is only coming near now in Jesus himself. He is the physical embodiment of God’s reign in the world. Thus to trust Jesus, to believe in Jesus, is to realize that God is our true king and all earthly kingdoms are of a wholly different nature than God’s kingdom.

Earthly kingdoms are not modeled on God’s kingdom – earthly kingdoms are in competition with God’s kingdom for the hearts and minds of God’s people. Caesar can take my taxes but Caesar has no rightful claim on my heart. Caesar only gets my heart if I give it to him – and I’m not going to do that.

God’s kingdom is subversive but not violent. It is not coerced or forced or even enforced on anyone. It just IS and it is the only universal, all-inclusive, kingdom there is. Which makes it both as powerful, and as mysterious, as bean plants sprouting in little boxes. Even if you feed it Coke. As long as it gets enough sunshine because it is only darkness that will certainly kill a seed.

Let us pray: Lord, reign in our lives. Reign in our lives with truth, justice, compassion, and love. Thank you for the mystery of your love which has been planted, and is now carefully tended, in our lives. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 4:21-25

October 2, 2019

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Mark 4:21-25

This is a rather cryptic passage, isn’t it? I’ve thought about it for a couple of days and I’m still not sure what to do with it. What is this lamp thing? What is it revealing? What is hidden? What is secret that needs to come to light?

“The measure you give will be the measure you get”? What’s that about? What is the “still more” you will get? What do those who “have” have? And what is it that they will get more of? How can you take nothing away from those who have nothing?

I don’t know what to call this except a very cryptic passage. It is like verbal tofu – it is a way of communicating that leaves a series of holes just waiting to be filled in by the listeners…if they have ears to hear.

Traditionally we have thought of the light as the teachings of Jesus and Jesus’ call for us to love God and love neighbor. Just about anyone who has ever had anything to do with Sunday School can hear the voices of children singing….”This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine… Hide it under a bushel, NO!…”

Whenever we baptize someone, we give them a candle with the words from Matthew, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

We get that. It makes sense to us. What doesn’t make sense is the secretive thing. The hidden thing. What is that about?

Here is where we need to remember the context in which Mark wrote. From the very beginning of his gospel, Mark contrasts Jesus with Caesar, Jesus within the milieu of the Roman empire. Seeing this helps us see that we always have to add – to love the teachings of Jesus and Jesus’ call to love our neighbor MORE than we might love Caesar and Caesar’s teachings and ways of doing life. That is dangerous. THAT is subversive. THAT could get a guy killed!

This also calls to mind the “messianic secret” the appears again and again in Mark. Everything will find its meaning in the resurrection of Jesus. His identity and power, now secret and hidden, will be fully revealed when the grave is found empty.

As for the “measure” business? William Shakespeare’s take in Measure for Measure had to do with restorative justice. Angelo, the deputy to the Duke of Vienna, takes a very public hard line against immorality which results in imprisoning a man who got his fiancé pregnant. Then he secretly abuses his power by coercing the sister of a prisoner to sleep with him after she pleads for mercy and the release of her brother. She threatens to expose his hypocrisy but he tells her that no one will believe her because he is powerful and she is nothing. In the end, everything is exposed.

Maybe the meaning of “the measure you give will be the measure you get” is something along the lines of “you will get what you have coming to you.” Or, as Dr. King often said, “The universe bends toward justice.”

Let us pray: Lord, as painful and as difficult as it can be, we pray for your light to shine wherever it needs to in order to bring us to conscious awareness of injustice and the destructive, even if seductive, power of sin. Let that light shine in and through us, that we might follow you even if against the grain of those who would follow Caesar instead. In Jesus’ name. Amen.