Archive for July, 2020

Mark 12:13-17

July 14, 2020

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. Mark 12:13-17

Let’s begin with the audience. The Pharisees are our old friends. They were the parish pastors of Jesus’ day. The Moral Majority. The Back to the Bible folks. Less interested in politics than personal morality, they were intent on teaching and practicing the Jewish laws – all 613 of them – believing that if all of Israel kept the law…even for one day…the Messiah would come. Let’s give them credit for their passion and religious devotion (even though they were largely unconscious of how self-serving it all was.)

The Herodians, on the other hand, WERE interested in politics. Specifically, they were supporters of the Herodian dynasty in Israel. Which meant, short of kicking Rome out (which wasn’t going to happen), they took the “go along to get along” approach.

Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t get along – but there is nothing like a common enemy to bring people together who otherwise don’t have much time for each other. Jesus was a threat to both of them. To the Pharisees, he was a lawless charlatan who captured the attention of too many people. To the Herodians, he was a danger to the status quo that served their purposes very nicely. So they went after Jesus.

The irony in this story is that the Pharisees and the Herodians both recognized that there was something deeply true about Jesus. It IS right to treat people without partiality, “truth” IS at the heart of a godly way of being in the world. They knew that…but those principles were not demonstrated in their lives. Mark tells us they were hypocrites.

They attack Jesus with a question, asking him whether or not they ought to pay taxes. It was a trick question. The question was intended to divide Jesus from the people who followed him. It was an invitation for Jesus to get in trouble with the Romans if he said “no” – or in trouble with the crowds who followed him if he said “yes” as they resented the heavy tax burdens Rome imposed and hoped Jesus would remove the Romans once and for all. So Jesus turned the question back on them.

Give the emperor’s money back to him…but what were they to give to God? We know the answer, don’t we? Give God your heart. Your devotion. Your loyalty. Your faith. Your life.

We ought never turn that around by giving our money to God while our “emperor for the day” gets our hearts. Doing so would easily be recognized as hypocrisy.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, in all things, in all areas of our personal and public lives, keep us always open-minded to seeking the truth that is your way of being in the world. Bless and protect all leaders who seek the public good and turn our hearts always to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


Mark 12:1-12

July 13, 2020

Then Jesus began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.

He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. Mark 12:1-12

The first thing you will want to know about this parable is “Who are THEY?”

  • Jesus began to speak to THEM…
  • …to collect from THEM
  • THEY seized him and beat him…
  • Finally he sent him to THEM…

It is human nature. The darkest side of human nature. Fallen human nature. You can call it the “blame game” or the “self-justification game” or the “victim game” or just plain old “hide & seek.” Call it whatever you want but it is the same game that people have been playing since first set free in the Garden.

We just LOVE to watch THEM get it…like we think THEY deserve to get it.

So who are THEY? The easy answer requires a quick peek at the end of chapter 11. There it is – “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.” THEY are the ones who are going to get cast out of the vineyard. Is that a pleasing answer to you?

Historically, Christians have done two things with stories like this one. First, they blamed Jews for the death of Jesus (which is a bad thing) and used that as justification to do horrific things to Jews for 2000 years. Second, they explained the death of Jesus as a necessary step in God’s plan for salvation (which would make it a good thing) but said that the benefits of said death would be available to all, but only given to the select few who signed up.

You might think of it as “One exclusivist mindset and system replacing another exclusivist mindset and system.” The end result? You still get to have a THEM to look down on.

Do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, such a reading pleases God?

Here is another reading: There is only WE. We share the vineyard. We share its fruits. There is enough for all. The owner isn’t in a distant country but right here. With us. Among us. In us. The tenants would have realized that had they not killed their teachers.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we sense the greed, selfishness, and fear that lurks within us and is expressed in all we do to get status, security, and control. We know the truth. We are the ones who want to keep the vineyard all to ourselves. Forgive us and lead us to a new way of being. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:27-33

July 10, 2020

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”

Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.”

They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” —they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”

And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Mark 11:27-33

We’ve heard much about authority in this 11th chapter of Mark. We’ve seen political and religious authorities who were threatened by Jesus and soon will seek his death. We’ve witnessed Jesus expressing his own authority in disrupting the temple and cursing the fig tree. And we have also been reminded of our own authority – to forgive the sins of others even as we seek our own forgiveness.

Now the chapter closes with a final verbal jousting match with the official religious types. Ironically, forgetting that their own authority is derived from God, they question Jesus about HIS authority. How will Jesus handle this attack?

Jesus answers their question with a question. It is a question that isn’t seeking an answer. It is seeking – and it gets – a response. A response that exposes the religious leaders for what they are. People who don’t give a rip about the truth or the faith. All they care about is preserving their positions, their power, their status. All they care about is pleasing the crowd that they count on for their own livelihoods.

This is a real temptation in our lives. We are so often driven far less by “What does loving our neighbors look like?” than by “What will the neighbors think of us?” Or we try to sneak out from under the challenge of our faith with our version of seeking loopholes, “So who truly IS my neighbor?”

This temptation to trade popularity for principles, to focus on people pleasing rather than people serving, remains a constant tension. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Ultimately it comes down to which authority we will submit to in our lives. The opponents of Jesus want to retain their own authority so they attack Jesus. They think that Jesus is “beneath them.” Their authority puts them on top. In charge. Their attitude is “no one is the boss of me!” If you think about that, it is pretty childish, even petty. Is it all that hard to imagine that people with institutional authority could be childish or petty?

Jesus, on the other hand, needs no institutional authority. Jesus IS authority – the author and giver of life. Thus the stance we take as followers of Jesus is humility, surrender, and obedience. We realize that the earthly authority we are given, institutional or otherwise, is derived from God who has put us in positions to love and serve our neighbors.

Of course all of us have to struggle with our own childishness, pettiness, and self-importance. The good news is that God never gives up on us.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you design and sustain the world as an interdependent ecosystem that has a place and purpose for all things. Help us not only find our place but to be content with our place, surrendering again and again to your lordship in our lives, not seeking to be above others but always to love others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:20-25

July 9, 2020

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”

Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” Mark 11:20-25

We start again with the fig tree. Fig trees are amazingly productive. Once past their first year, they produce fruit once or twice a year. They can remain productive for decades. But not this one. It is withered to its roots. (It is hard not to notice how the unproductive fig tree frames the story of Jesus attacking the perversion of the temple.)

But I find something else very interesting about these verses. Open your Bible. Turn to the 11th chapter of Mark. Do you see verse 26? Quite likely, you don’t.

I use the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV). Verse 26 only appears in a footnote in my Bible. As it does in the Revised Standard Version (RSV), and the New International Version (NIV). It doesn’t even show up in the Living Bible (LB) or the New Living Translation (NLT).

Here is what the footnote says: “Other ancient authorities add verse 26, ‘But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’” Interesting, isn’t it, that those who decide such things, decided this verse didn’t belong in the main text?

I do want to note that verse 26 DOES appear in the King James Version (KJV), the New King James Version (NKJV) AND in Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Bible, the Message (MG).

Why would some include it while others relegate it to a footnote? Bible scholars would no doubt argue about the veracity of the underlying manuscript sources…but I’m suspicious.

I’m thinking, on a practical level, verse 26 makes the faith all too real and maybe too hard. It is possible, self-centered as we are, to hear the words “Forgive us our trespasses” very clearly as we pray the Lord’s Prayer without paying much attention at all to “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” The missing verse 26 removes any uncertainty about the centrality of God’s will that we forgive one another – not just that we seek God’s forgiveness to make sure and secure our place in the boat.

Personally, this is just my opinion, but if Mark had asked me as he wrote his Jesus story, I would much rather include verse 26 and drop the metaphor of the mountain and the sea. What Jesus is doing in this passage is encouraging us to pray always – coming on the heels of his declaration of the temple as a house of prayer – because prayer keeps us in relationship with God. Prayer helps us remember that God is God and we’re not – and that we are never alone.

Jesus isn’t equating prayer with a Celestial Amazon Order for people who REALLY believe. Even if you’re heard TV preachers promising a miraculous godly harvest after you’ve done your generosity thing. That is not the Christian faith. That is the con of a charlatan.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we remember this morning that 7 of the 10 commandments have to do with loving our neighbor. We get it. This matters to you. You want your love not only to be real but to be realized in our lives, and that happens when we let your love flow through us in forgiving others, even as we find the peace that comes when others forgive us. Let that not only be our prayer but our practice. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:12-19

July 8, 2020

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’?

But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. Mark 11:12-19

Yesterday, it was the crowds along the street. Today, it is the vendors in the temple square. One day posed a challenge to the authority of the political authorities. Today the challenge is to the religious authorities.

But what about that fig tree?

Many years ago, a church member brought up this passage with me. It had bothered her since childhood. How could Jesus get so angry with a fig tree? And then she made the fatal leap –  “If Jesus could get so angry at an unproductive fig tree, how would Jesus judge her should she prove to be an unproductive Christian?”

My heart went out to her. No doubt someone had drilled some pretty bent ideas about the Christian faith into her head while growing up. Not unusual ideas – Christianity as a meritocracy. Christianity as an apologist for the individualism and “climb the ladder” mentality of American culture. Christianity – and the threat of eternal punishment that some make so much of – as a deterrent against bad behavior. She swallowed it all. Christianity as behavioral manipulation.

I get that. Especially when we are children, we are wide open to the ideas given to us by the authority figures in our lives. We can be deeply wounded without any awareness from those who wounded us. That is the problem with authority figures. They can be dangerous.

Especially when their goal is to retain, at any cost, their authority. Even, maybe especially, amongst religious authorities.

Why? (And I write as somewhat of a religious authority given my official role in my congregation.) Because we need to eat. We have to make a living somehow. Ours is a service industry. Clergy are dependent on the generosity of others even given the reality that the IRS makes us stamp every year-end statement with the assurance that those who have given have not received anything of actual value in return.

When Jesus attacks the temple vendors, he is attacking the position and authority of the religious leaders. He threatened their livelihoods. I get that – especially in these days of the pandemic when our expensive buildings sit empty and the real heart of the faith – Word and Sacrament, Christian community – has to happen from a distance.

I’m not at all surprised to hear about churches that insist on public worship despite the warnings coming from public health authorities. No public worship – no physical offering? Could money be the real driving force?

It certainly was in Jesus’ day. What to do? What to do? What to do? Time to get rid of him.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, we are mindful of the many ways that people can be manipulated by those who invoke your name for their own selfish purposes. We are mindful of those whose faith has been twisted by fear. May we always live by faith, not driven by fear or finances. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:8-11

July 7, 2020

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,


Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. Mark 11:8-11

I’ve been to Jerusalem. I’ve walked from the parking lot on the Mount of Olives, past the Garden of Gethsemane, across the bottom of the valley, and through the gate to the Old City. I’ve walked the narrow streets of the Via Dolorosa. Those memories come back when I read today’s text. I can easily imagine the crowds that gathered.

Jerusalem was filled with Passover pilgrims. It is easy to imagine Jesus drawing a crowd. A few followers, lots of rubberneckers.

We ought not be overly impressed by crowds. The Rolling Stones and what’s left of the Grateful Dead can still draw huge crowds. So can car accidents and burning buildings. We ought never equate popularity with principles, integrity, or honor.

We also ought never forget how differently those crowds could be defined. Some saw religious pilgrims honoring a man they believed to be the Messiah. Others – read “those in power” – would have seen those same crowds as protesters, an angry mob, anarchists, fringe radicals. The last thing Pontius Pilate would have wanted was word getting back to Rome that he was losing control of the city.

So, what to do? What to do? What to do?

Address the system that allowed the few to exploit the labor and lives of the many, leading to the very oppression that Jesus was intent on freeing people from? Canceling the temple taxes that went directly to Rome, thereby freeing people from their burden and allowing the temple to again be a house of prayer for all people rather than a marketplace for exploiting peoples’ spirituality? Granting freedom to the slaves that Romans so freely captured, bought, sold, and abused?

No. That would be too complicated. That would be too disruptive.

Better to just arrest and kill the rabble-rouser. Hang him on a cross as the sort of public spectacle – like a lynching – that would make it crystal clear to the general public that nothing was going to change the status quo. Shut up. Give up, Get in line. Or else you will get it too.

As crazy as these days are in which we are living, never before has the mission, ministry, and gospel of Jesus shown with such clarity.

Let us pray: Like those first crowds, O Lord, we often seek you only for what we want and when we want it. We lose sight of the many reasons that people were drawn to you and the authorities were threatened by you. Let none of that deter us from striving always toward love of our neighbors. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Mark 11:1-7

July 6, 2020

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’”

They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Mark 11:1-7

Every time I read this story, the preparation for what we celebrate as Palm Sunday, I immediately think of two things. Today, I’ll add a third.

First, I remember a story that Pastor Don Carlson once told about his time as a youth pastor in La Grange, TX. They were preparing for a summer youth trip and needed one more vehicle. A businessman in town had recently purchased a beautiful conversion van. The van was just what the kids from St. Paul Lutheran needed. But Don was very hesitant to ask for it. So he reached out to an older Presbyterian pastor, kind of his mentor, for advice. Don told him what he wanted and added that the owners of the van weren’t even members of his church.

Pastor McElroy told Pastor Carlson, “If you need it for the Lord’s work, don’t hesitate to ask. Never underestimate the generosity of people.” Don asked. He got the van. I’ll never forget the story.

The second thought is how Jesus’ entry on a colt is a not-so-subtle subversion of the garish splendor of Caesar’s victory parades into Rome. The soldiers. The spoils of war. The long line of newly captured slaves. Caesar riding a majestic warhorse. Jesus is the antithesis of Caesar.

Today I am noticing one more little detail. The disciples were to bring a colt that had “never been ridden.” What are we to make of that? Is Jesus going to be some kind of bronco buster before riding into town? Clearly not. So what does it mean?

Maybe it means that there had never been a king like Jesus. A person driven, not by his own personal glory or power, but truly driven by doing God’s will in the world. Truly driven by love – not love as a manipulative catch phrase that allows the masses to fill in the blanks of what that might possibly mean for them – but love that lands in healing, in accepting, in forgiving, in feeding, in setting the oppressed free.

There has never been a king like that. But there could be. It would take a king that models himself or herself after Jesus, rather than Caesar or Pontius Pilate.

Let us pray: King Jesus, may we not simply greet you with praise but follow you with purpose. Even as that path takes us through a cross. In Jesus’ name. Amen.