Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Since it has been more than a month since the last time we read from this gospel, so let’s take a minute to situate this reading in its context.
Jesus and the disciples are being grilled by the Pharisees and the scribes after the feeding of the five thousand Jews and before the feeding of the four thousand Gentiles. The disciples left that first feeding in a boat, and Jesus walked across the water to reach them. Most recently, they have just completed a series of healings in Genneseret, after landing their boat there.
The Pharisees and the scribes come up from Jerusalem and they discover Jesus and the disciples who are eating bread without washing their hands first. Is there a single mother in the room who is not on the side of the Pharisees here? Who has not heard the voice of their mother imploring them: “Kellie, (fill in your name here) Did you wash your hands?” It seems pretty elementary, don’t you think? Obviously the Pharisees and the scribes are concerned for the disciples’ health, right? Clearly Jesus should be taking better care of his disciples. No wonder they question him.
“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”
Tradition of the elders? Defiled hands? Maybe there’s something more here.
We skipped over a Markan parenthetical statement, too. And if there’s one thing we should remember about the briefest of the gospel writers, Mark never includes anything extra or superfluous. So let’s see what’s in there: “For the Pharisees , and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders, and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of the cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:3-4).
That’s quite a statement! All Jews—really? Probably not. Rather every Jew of a certain status—probably all important Jews, all well-off Jews, all privileged Jews, all “society” Jews. The farmers in the fields, the tradespeople, the “common” Jews are probably a little less obsessed with the details described here. I would imagine the shepherd probably have to eat out their in their fields without much opportunity for such intricate tradition.
No doubt Jesus is aware of this, too. Mary and Joseph probably raised him to know all about the tradition of the elders—remember he has been teaching in the synagogues and was hanging out at the temple as a young boy.
The issue here is not really a health concern. The Pharisees are not concerned with hand washing for the same reasons as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who are indeed concerned with hand washing. The CDC website says this about the subject: “Keeping hands clean though improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Many diseases and conditions are spread by not washing hand with soap and clean, running water.” (www.cdc.gov/handwashing/when-how-handwashing.html)
So yes, hand washing IS important! And nowhere in this passage is Jesus challenging that idea. Keep washing your hands!
The thing is that the Pharisees and “all the Jews” do not wash their hands to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. They don’t even wash their hands to make sure that no one else has spread germs either. Heck, they don’t even know about germs yet!
The Pharisees and “all the Jews” wash their hands so that everyone will know that they are Jews. These Jews—the Jews of the establishment—wash their hands so they will know who is “in” and who is “out.” They wash their hands so that no one will ever mistake them for a Gentile. They wash their hands so that they can exclude anyone else who does not wash their hands. They wash their hands to put up a fence around their religion in order to keep out the people they do not want to associate with. They wash their hands to separate themselves from “those people.”
Hand-washing is used as a password to an exclusive club designed to preserve their preferences and the pureness of their identity and to avoid having to let anyone new in. This way they can avoid having to change anything. They keep themselves from having to challenge their own thinking and actions by staying exclusive.
The institutional leaders of Israel have taken a commandment of God intended for the priests who serve God in the holy of holies in order to keep the religion true as it was shared to all people and they have changed it to be a requirement of membership. And it happened without any direct intention.
No doubt, it began with the thought that it would please God if more than just the priests of God showed respect for God by cleansing themselves. The oral tradition of the Pharisees is certainly borne of the intention to purify themselves in order to be close to God. Through history, the church has done the same thing.
Through much of church history, countless people have had disagreements and many have even died while arguing about the acceptable mode and age of baptism. Do you have to be an adult with a full understanding of salvation to be baptized, or can you also baptize an infant. And when you baptize, how do you have to do it? Do you sprinkle a little water? Do you pour a lot of water? Do you have to be immersed in the water? And if you are immersed, does it have to be running water in a river or stream? Can it be in a lake? A pool? An indoor or outdoor pool? Is chlorine okay?
We may chuckle at this example, but lines have been drawn and the church has been divided into several denominations over this issue. Even today, some churches refuse to acknowledge the baptism of someone who was an infant at the time, or who was not immersed in the water, and will require that person to be baptized again “properly.” In effect, they are saying, You are not one of us. You are not one of God’s. They are putting a fence around the font in order to keep others out, at least until they conform and become one of them.
Religious observances and spiritual practices can be a slippery slope. That which is given in order to build up the kingdom of God and those who follow Christ can easily be turned into a tool to separate the church from outsiders.
Jesus points the Pharisees to the prophets:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
In vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.
You abandon the command of God and hold to human tradition. You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition” (Mark 7:6b-9).
What command to they abandon? Jesus cites the greatest commandment in Matthews gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (from Matthew 22:34-40). Doesn’t sound much like a command to keep yourself separate from others, does it?
This summer, we’ve been focusing on some spiritual practices. We’ve been using the five marks of a growing church, according to William J. Carl:
- Everybody reading the Bible daily
- Everybody praying daily
- Modeling the faith for others
- Outside evangelism
- Social Justice
Even these practices can be dangerous, if we are not doing them for the right reason. Even these practices could be used to make ourselves look pious and righteous and to keep others who don’t measure up out.
If we are not doing these in order to strengthen ourselves as disciples SO THAT WE CAN SHARE THE GOOD NEWS WITH OTHERS and SO THAT WE CAN INVITE THOSE WHO ARE OUTSIDE TO COME IN with equal rights and status and grace and love, then we need to STOP!
We cannot practice these things in order to Lord it over someone else. We must not build ourselves up in order to tear anyone else down. We are not going to go around Salisbury comparing ourselves to others and checking to see if they are washing their hands.
In fact, when we engage in these practices with God at the center, we will realize that we cannot earn our place in God’s kingdom and we are not worthy of dwelling there. We will realize that we are only here in this place by the grace of God and through the love of Jesus Christ. We will realize that no one is an outsider in the kingdom of heaven. And that God invites everyone in.
The church is an interesting intersection in its history, as is this particular church or ours. The world around us is changing—as it always has been and always will bee—although that change is happening faster and faster. We have to make a choice—will we dig in our heels and cling tightly to our traditions, and allow them to separate us from a world that may not understand them? Or will we consider who and where we are at this point in time and open ourselves to the Spirit who will help us adapt them in ways that will allow them to help us grow in discipleship, so that those who see us will see the One we serve and perhaps even come along with us?
O Lord, you know the way you would have us go. Give us courage to follow where you lead us and wisdom to help others come to know you because they have seen your face in us. Amen.
a sermon based on John 6:24-35
Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The last time we saw this crowd, they were seated down on the ground where Jesus was serving them an “all you can eat” buffet of bread and fish. The crowd was five thousand strong, probably even larger, if you were to count the women and children. Every single person ate as much as he or she wanted. Their hunger was fully satisfied. And there were still twelve overflowing baskets of leftovers.
We remember that Jesus produced this entire feast from the meager lunch of a small boy—a couple of small fish and a few dinner rolls of bread. In Jesus’ hands, the food multiplied. And multiplied. A miracle—or a “sign” as John writes. In John’s gospel signs are given so that we may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
Until now, I’ve imagined something like this: Jesus walks through the crowd (or sends the disciples through the crowd) carrying a basket full of pieces of fish and another basket with torn up pieces of bread. The people reach into each of the baskets, grabbing a handful of each and then eating until they are satisfied. Think about it. Picture it. There is nothing very appetizing about that scene, is there? I mean who wants a handful of pieces of fish and a few communion-style pieces of bread? And who is going to keep eating that until they are full?
My imagination doesn’t do honor to the host of the banquet. I’ve left out the essence of Jesus. I’ve left out the compassion and the love and the graciousness and the generosity and even the kindness. Jesus would be the first to agree that my picture of that feast is not right. I don’t think Jesus would dip his hand into a basket of fish pieces, either.
The food Jesus provided must have been delicious. More like fish tacos, or a po’-boy, or even a filet-o-fish. Now I imagine the people munching away on some sort of a delicious fish sandwich—a mouth-watering treat. No wonder they eat until they are full. They are physically full—and their hunger is fulfilled, too. The Lord himself feeds them.
They probably stayed where they were for awhile afterward, talking about the unexpected and excellent lunch they’d just eaten. How did he do it? What was in that sandwich? Have you ever eaten anything quite like it before? They even tried to make Jesus their king—which is the point at which he left to go and find the disciples.
Eventually, they become hungry again. And looking around they notice that Jesus had left. Hey! Let’s go find him. Maybe he’s got more! Where did he get all that food?
They jump into their boats and set sail. Soon they find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Hey, Rabbi—when did you come here? The question is not only a surface question—the answer to which would be a couple of hours ago—it’s also a theological one—the answer to which you will find in the prologue to John’s gospel. For the most part, however, this crowd is focused on the surface question. Hey Jesus! You know that lunch you made for us on the mountain? It was really good! And now we’re hungry again. Have you got any more? You know, you kind of remind us Moses. He gave the Israelite people the manna that they needed to stay alive. Are you like him? What work would you like us to do for you so you can give us more bread?
Imagine Jesus’ response to their shallow understanding. Imagine how much more he wants for them. And for us.
Jesus tells them that was not Moses who gave the people food, but God who gives the people food—then and now. And he tells them that they cannot earn it. The only “work” is not work at all—it’s faith, it’s belief, it’s trust. This “work” is a new way of being—a different way of living. The same God who fed the Israelites in the desert feeds the Israelites now. The people ask for a sign, even before the one they just experienced has time to fade.
And the food that the people need to live is not only physical food. Jesus is the bread from heaven who comes to give them life. This bread is not the bread of fish sandwiches. Neither is it the flakes of dewy substance that fell on the desert each night to be gathered by the Israelites each morning—enough for that day only. Any extra bread they tried to save perished. The same God who provided the manna from heaven gives them bread from heaven that will satisfy forever.
And they continue to speak from their stomachs—give us this bread always! “I am the bread of life—while Jesus speaks from somewhere larger. Jesus teaches the people. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The Bread of Life—so much more than a loaf of bread, and yet a loaf of bread at the same time. This bread—the bread we will eat together in just a few minutes. A loaf of bread from heaven. And we, as Presbyterians, will be inclined to tear the tiniest piece from the loaf and dip it in the cup and eat it. Funny that we shouldn’t want a large hunk, when you think about it. The bread of communion, in which we are fed spiritually and physically and in which we meet each other and the Lord, and join with all the saints who have come before us—and, I think, those who will come later, too. Some bread!
And yet, if we leave it here, if this is our total understanding of the Bread of Life, I fear we are not much better than the crowd who followed Jesus to ask for another fish sandwich. The Bread of Life is that which comes down from heaven and gives us life. It is the Lord himself.
We can taste the bread of life when a friend calls to say that she cares. We partake of this bread in an answered prayer, and in the opportunity to join in prayer with someone else. We are surrounded with the delicious aroma of the bread of life when we forgive someone who has been our debtor—and we certainly receive a portion of the bread of life when we find ourselves forgiven.
Thanks be to God that whoever eats this bread will never hunger, and that whoever believes—whoever lives in this new way—will never be thirsty.
O Lord uphold each one of us by your Holy Spirit. Give us this day our daily bread, and let us eat and drink remembering that this is the bread of life that has come down from heaven so that we might have life. Amen.
a sermon based on John 6:1-23
Guide us, O God, by your Word and Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover your peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
What is your satisfaction rating? Mick Jagger tells us that he can’t get no satisfaction, and he speaks for all of us in this most famous song. His shirts are not white enough, his cigarettes might not be the right brand. He tries. And he tries. And he tries. But he can’t get no. Oh no no no. Hey hey hey. That’s what he says. No satisfaction.
The song pushes back against social pressures to have the “right stuff” and to act the “right way.” It is pressure to have the all of the latest style and gadgets and to be willing to throw them all away when the “in” thing changes again in to be current with the times.
We may laugh at the idea, but in reality, we all face the same pressure—both overt and more nuanced, and we all buy into it to some degree. Our economy thrives when we keep buying new things, moving to bigger or more expensive houses, and trading in cars that are in fine working order to get the newest model seen in the latest commercial. I was raised by an advertiser. And I married a marketer. I know how these things work. And I still fall for them, too.
Not only do we allow ourselves to be convinced that we need more, we also come to believe that if we don’t go and get it right now, there will not be enough later. Even when an item is backordered, doesn’t that give you just a little angst? It doesn’t even mean that there’s not enough for you, it just means you’re going to have to wait a little while first. And in our right-clicking, high-speed-internet-world, we do not want to wait for anything. At all. Ever.
Not only do we want and demand satisfaction. We want instant gratification. Today. And if that means that someone else will have to wait or be backordered, that’s okay. Just give me mine now.
Our fear of not having enough applies to more subtle things, too. And for you and for me in this place this morning, our fears of not having enough are very different than those of people who live without all of the things we take for granted and don’t really worry about at all—like where our next meal will come from or how we will pay the rent this month or if we can find a way to take my child to a doctor or to pay for the prescription we’ve just been given. Some of those things might stretch us a little from time to time, but in this room, it seems safe to say that these things don’t keep us awake at night very often.
Our fears are different. Our fears come from a different place. Will there be enough for me if you get the welfare you need? Will my health care be of the same excellent quality if you get a subsidy to pay for your Obamacare? Will the price of my goods increase if you are paid a living wage? Will the cost of my food increase if undocumented workers are either brought in to pick it or kept away and unable to pick it? Will the value of my home decrease if your rent is subsidized? Will you disrespect my ancestors if I acknowledge yours? Will you take away my gun if I consent to controls that determine where you should have one?
The root of all of these fears is this: Will there be enough for me if there is enough for you? Or do I need to limit your access to ensure that I can have what I need and even what I want.
There’s nothing new in that fear. It is featured in capital letters throughout the Scriptures and throughout human history. And God has been trying to cure us of this fear since Eden, when God gave Adam and Eve everything they could possibly dream of while asking them to leave just one tree alone.
The feeding of the five thousand is the story of God’s economy of overflowing abundance. It is the only miracle story of Jesus that appears in all four gospels. Today, we have read John’s account of this event as well as the story of Jesus walking across the water to reach the disciples.
John sets the scene as the Passover—the annual celebratory feast that recounts and remembers God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The passover meal remembers the meal eaten on the last evening before the final plague that drove Pharaoh to relent to Moses’ request to “let my people go.” The meal was eaten in a hurry, with a belt around the waist and with sandals on the feet. There was lamb and bitter herbs and unleavened bread. And even though the meal was rushed, everyone ate and was filled.
The celebration also recalls the miraculous provision of God while Israel was in the wilderness: water from a rock, bread from heaven, and even quail when the people demanded meat. “Where am I to get meat to feed these people?” Moses’ exasperated question is heard in Philip’s voice: “Where are we to get bread to feed all these people?” Even in the desert, the people got the bread and water they needed, and more than enough of the meat they wanted.
Jesus begins with the meager lunch of a poor boy: two small fish and few loaves of bread. Five thousand men, probably along with women and children, sit down on the grass in an orderly fashion. Jesus brings the boy’s lunch, and every single person there eats until they are satisfied—yes, Mick Jagger, that’s right!—and still there are twelve overflowing baskets of left overs. Can you imagine that little boy as he hands over his only lunch? Two small fish and some bread, the “loaves” of which were probably more like dinner rolls, would not even fill his own belly. He must have asked the question of fear—will there be enough lunch for me if all of these people get some too?
Leaving the satisfied crowd, perhaps with fingers scratching heads at what just happened, the disciples climb into a boat to go home. They must have been filled with wonder and questions and amazement and fear. The skies grew dark as evening set in. Suddenly, the winds start blowing and the seas grow rough. The disciples find themselves in a watery chaos, reminiscent of the chaotic waters at creation. As they scan the horizon, they see recognize Jesus walking toward them. On top of the water. And as he walks, the waters grow calm under his feet. The one who walks on the water has the power to calm the chaos. “Do not be afraid. Ego emi. I am. It is I. The disciples know that this is God walking toward them in Jesus. The disciples are experiencing a theophany. There is enough. There is more than enough. For me. For you. For all of us.
God’s limitless grace of abundance is theirs. God’s limitless grace of abundance is yours. And it’s mine. If we will surrender our meager lunches to the Lord of life, we will also experience that everyone—everyone—will eat until they are satisfied and there will still be an abundance of grace leftover, spilling over the top of our baskets.
I will have more than I need when you have more than you need. The supply-demand principle in God’s economy is this: there is always more than enough for everyone. You CAN get yes, satisfaction.
Can you imagine what a difference it would make to every part of our lives if we lived as if we truly believe it? The kingdom of heaven would indeed come near. May God help us to trust and to loosen our tight-fisted grip on our lunch bag.
All glory, honor, and praise be to the God of abundant grace, the Son of overflowing love, and the Spirit of limitless love. Amen.
a sermon based on Psalm 23 and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
After Mark’s detailed aside about the death of John the Baptist, he continues the story of the initial experience of the disciples/apostles whom Jesus sent out into the surrounding villages in pairs of two to continue the ministry work of Jesus. The disciples’ work attracts the attention of Herod, who is distressed to find that the message has not died with John. Our passage picks up this morning as these disciples-turned-apostles return home, bouncing with excitement and talking over one another in their eagerness to tell Jesus how much success they had as they went through the nearby countryside.
Picture them—twelve men vying for position, each one trying to get to Jesus first. Their voices, full of excitement, and get louder and louder as the stories of their successes pile up at Jesus’ feet. “It was SO awesome, Jesus. You should have seen us!” We see replays of this scene and we hear echoes of the sounds when a van full of teenagers return from Montreat, or a bus full of adults returns from a mission trip. It is a mountaintop experience. It’s fulfilling and energizing and exhausting. When the adrenaline begins to wear thin, and when the lives we left behind catch up, our energy is zapped, our minds are exhausted, and even our bodies crumple with fatigue.
Knowing all of this, Jesus gathers his exhilarated disciples together and tells them to come away with him to a quiet place where they can rest. Jesus’ compassion for his disciples is real. He knows that they will need to take time to be still in order to stay connected: to God, to him, and to each other.
We know from other stories, that taking time to be quiet, to rest, and to reconnect with God is a regular event in the life of Jesus. I wonder if we understand why, and if we realize that Jesus offers this rest to the disciples in this story and to all disciples everywhere—even here—as a gift and as an example to be followed. I wonder, too, if you take time to be quiet with God. I know for myself, it is very easy to forget to be still.
We live in a crazy-busy world. Americans hold the record for being busy. We work more hours than anywhere else, and what’s interesting is that our productivity is not significantly impacted by our busyness. Still, we buy in wholeheartedly to adages like “idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” We’ve even learned how to multitask. We get busier and busier and busier. And we’ve convinced ourselves that a jam-packed busy schedule is needed to prove what good Christians we are and what a good church we are. We’ve begun to believe that faith is reflected by the size of our todo list and the number of events and programs we attend, or even run.
Don Henley wrote these words in the Eagles’ song, “Learn To Be Still”:
It’s just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You’d give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will—
Learn to be still.
We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don’t know how to be alone
So we wander ‘round this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell—
Learn to be still
(“Learn To Be Still” by Don Henley, 1994, on Hell Freezes Over by the Eagles)
That song has captivated my attention since it was released. It often convicts me and reminds me that I need to take time to be still. It echoes Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” It reminds me how easily I can get caught up in the many things that clamor for my attention. It reminds me how vulnerable we are and how easily we can be deceived into following someone or something else. It reminds me that spending time quietly with God keeps me rooted in Christ.
It also echoes the twenty-third Psalm and much of John’s gospel. “We are like sheep without a shepherd.” It seems to me like that is a truly accurate statement and it is also, perhaps, the biggest lie we fall for—over and over again. We are NOT sheep without a shepherd. We should be learning to be still in order to hear the voice of God, the call of the Holy Spirit who quietly reminds us in the stillness:
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. (Psalm 23)
That’s why we need to be still. That’s who we need to follow. If the activities of our days does not lead us here, if the words of our mouths do not sound like those of a precious and beloved sheep of the Good Shepherd, if the direction of our life cannot be found in these words, then we are definitely following the wrong god home.
There are plenty of gods out there to follow: the god of fear, the god of hatred, the god of jealousy, the god of division, and so many more. Their paths are alluring. And they look especially attractive when we are filled with fear and anxiety—and Americans, especially since September 11, 2001, are nothing if not filled with fear an anxiety. I read it every week in our own newspaper. The letters to the editor in our own local paper frequently threaten others with the false gods of hatred and violence and fear. Here’s just two samples from this week:
An incoherent rant on all sorts of things ended with this lovely note to everyone with whom the writer disagreed: “The believers will have a new peaceful home, but the non-believers and Satan and demons will be on this old earth burning forever in a lake of fire” (Ellie Mae Lambert, in the Letters to the Editor of the Salisbury Post on July 15, 2015).
And this lovely sentiment from someone in response to a theft of an item in her home: “I know that I will have to forgive you, but I just pray that the convicted power of Jesus will fall down on you and make you miserable, if you’ve still got a conscience” (JoAnne McKinney, in the Letters to the Editor of the Salisbury Post on July 15, 2015).
While both writers claim to be following Jesus and delight in calling down his wrath on their enemies, they are mistaken. They have been following the wrong god home. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to give them the other cheek and a tunic and to feed them. We are not to damn them or condemn them or hate them or even fear them.
Voices like these are speaking for the church. Voices like these are calling for violence in the name of our Lord to whom violence is the antithesis of the gospel news we have been given. And we are helping these voices, unless we can speak out in God’s language of compassion and grace. In the midst of a world filled with such voices of threatening hatred, may we learn to be still. May we learn to listen to God. May we learn to trust the shepherd who loves us and who has everything we need—and not just us, but all people everywhere.
Now to the Holy One who is at work within us, accomplishing far more than we could ever ask or imagine; to God be all glory in the church and in Christ Jesus, now and forever. Amen.
a sermon based on Mark 6:14-29, the death of John the Baptist
Mark’s gospel is the most succinct of the four. Mark’s accounts are short; he uses words sparingly. It’s remarkable, then, that Mark takes so much room to tell the story of the death of John the Baptist. Mark’s choice to describe it in such detail seems reason enough for us to give this story our undivided attention.
Herod is making his first appearance in Mark’s gospel, but we’ve met him before. Matthew’s gospel relates the story of the wise men who stop to ask Herod where the king of the Jews has been born. Herod tries unsuccessfully to trick them into disclosing the location. When that fails, he orders the murder of all of the boy babies aged two and younger.
Her’s a little more background information. Although Mark calls him King, Herod was actually the tetrarch, because the Roman emperor would not let him use the title king. Perhaps Mark didn’t know that, or maybe he is offering a little dig by using the title Herod so wanted to have for himself. That Herod’s character was flawed is well recorded by the historian of Jewish antiquity, Josephus. His history confirms that John the Baptist died at the hand of Herod, although the details of the story are less filled in, and there is no indication that Herod was any sort of a J the B fan. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that Herod’s perceived threat from John the Baptist is recorded in history outside of scripture, too.
The story itself is scandalous and would likely be rated “R,” if not “X” today. Did you catch that as you listened, or has the story been tamed for your ears through repeated telling or a benign message taken from between the details? In my own case, I think the latter is true. I had forgotten, or even missed, the height of both its risqué nature, and its horrific violence. It is not a story for the faint-hearted, or perhaps, for the very young.
Obviously paranoid, Herod keeps a careful watch on his kingdom. He likely fears for his own life, as expectations from Rome would demand peace and unquestioning obedience to his authority. Failure to maintain the status quo would cost him his job, and perhaps even his life. So his paranoia is not completely unfounded.
John the Baptist, as you will recall, dresses wildly and operates outside of town in the wilderness on the banks of the Jordan. Both of these choices communicate an anti-establishment message. He calls the people to repent and be baptized. The call to repentance is not the call to confess a list of sins that has become associated with the word in our day. Instead it is a call to turn around, to turn away from the life you have been living, the ideals you have bought into, and to live in an entirely new and different way. It is a call to reject the life Rome demands of you and to live in a new way—a way forbidden by Rome and by Herod. The kingdom of God which John calls the people to turn toward is categorically different from the kingdom of Rome.
Herod’s antennae is set to pick up the treasonous message of John the Baptist. And Herod arrests John early on in Mark’s gospel. In fact, John’s arrest is the event that marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. John is the first character to appear in Mark’s gospel attracting Jesus to come and be baptized. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness follows immediately after his baptism, and John’s arrest follows as Jesus returns from the desert. Jesus calls his first disciples immediately after John is put in prison. Jesus picks up John’s mantle and continues spreading his counter cultural message to reject the kingdom of Rome and discover the kingdom of heaven.
Before long, word of Jesus and his disciples, who’ve just been sent into the villages to spread the same message reaches Herod. Recognizing the content of the preaching, Herod’s paranoia convinces him that John has somehow returned from the dead. Killing John the Baptist has failed to kill his message. A frightened and guilt-ridden Herod’s memory flashes back to John’s death.
While he may not have technically been a king, Herod had the means to throw a party. He would have made the celebrity pages, and probably the police blotters of his day—except that he owned the celebrity pages and the police stations of his day.
Don’t miss the excesses of his parties. Imagine a room full of men—probably middle aged, successful men who would have warranted the invitation through their business acumen, their shrewdness, their success. They would be sycophants who played the system expertly in order to gain the favor of Herod and in turn to be invited to his extravagant parties.
Picture them sprawled around the table, lying on their couches, drink in hand, eyes glassy, glazed over from the effects of overeating the rich food and drinking far too much wine. They slur their words, they laugh too loud, and they expect a little entertainment from some well proportioned, scantily clad women who will do their bidding. They are looking for the prostitutes who have been hired to provide everything these inebriated men want. They wait eagerly like a pack of hungry wolves waiting for a fresh kill to devour.
Enter Salome. She is not a prostitute, but Herod’s own step-daughter. She is the child of his dead brother Philip and Philip’s wife Herodias, who is now Herod’s wife. In fact, Salome is not only Herod’s step-daughter, she’s his niece. Whether Herod has summoned her, or whether she has come at her own volition hardly matters. While Mark has called her Herodias, it is not his wife, but her daughter who dances before the men. To put it bluntly, Herod pimps his daughter to impress his friends.
The men are pleased. And Herod is pleased. So much so, that he puffs up his chest a little and turns to her, speaking so all can hear him, “As me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” The ears perk around the room. Herod repeats his offer, swearing to all who are there: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” Was it it the liquor talking? Or was Herod so desperate to impress the men gathered around him? Did he imagine her wish would be a new pony or a new car or a diamond necklace? Did he have any idea what he was saying?
Salome, goes out to ask her mother Herodias what she would ask for.
Ah, Herodias. Herodias took some flack when she decided to marry Herod, who was the brother of her own husband, Philip. When her brother-in-law proposed the arrangement, she was quick to agree. And then John the Baptist had the nerve to tell them off, “It is not lawful for you to marry your brother’s wife,” he told Herod. So, in an effort to protect himself and his sister-in-law-wife, Herod arrested John and put him in prison, and at the same time, launched Jesus’ own ministry.
At the same time, however, Herod was intrigued by John and John’s preaching. He kept John in prison where Herod protected John. Mark tells us that while Herodias wanted John dead, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard hi, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him.” Something about John attracted Herod. Something about John’s preaching appealed to Herod. Perhaps it was good for his P.R. to have a religious man to advise him.
Back to Salome. Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. This was her chance to demand the death of John, whom Herod seemed reluctant to execute. So she sent Salome back into the roomful of men to ask for the death of John.
Salome ups the request, asking to be brought the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod is grieved by her request, but he’s also in an awkward spot. He is afraid to kill John, but he is more afraid of the opinion of the crowd around him. Mark doesn’t even credit him with much time for hemming and hawing. “Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought the head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”
The story is tragic. The story is terrible. Mark tells it in great detail—not just to tell us about the undeserved death of John the Baptist—but to foreshadow the death of the one who comes after him, the One for whom John prepared the way. In telling us the horrible story of King Herod’s murder of John the Baptist, ordered out of fear of his guest’s opinion of him, Mark hints at the tragic story of Pontius Pilate’s decision to crucify Jesus, whom he believes innocent of the charges, for fear of the opinion of the crowd surrounding him.
Both held the power of life and death. Both were intoxicated by that power. Both were intrigued by the teacher’s of the gospel. And at the moment of truth, both allowed fear of others’ opinions turn them away from that life-giving message into the darkness of violence and death. Both are remembered in history, not as good men but as weak men who were powerless to stop the good new of God’s kingdom.
We all experience moments when we must make a choice between pleasing others and following Christ. Perhaps they are not life-and-death choices, but each is important and says a great deal about our faith. May we continue growing in Christ, so that we may have the courage and the wisdom to choose life, and to worry less and less about the opinion of the crowds.
To the God of all grace, who calls you to share God’s eternal glory in union with Christ, be the power forever! Amen.
All glory and honor and praise be to our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
a sermon based on Mark 5:21-43
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
This week we pick up Mark’s gospel after Jesus and the disciples return from the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus and the disciples have just navigated back across the water in their once storm tossed boat, landing on the shores of Galilee.
Mark doesn’t tell us what it is that Jesus plans to do, but given that he sets off at a good clip, we can be sure he has something important in mind. As he makes his way across town, the ever-present crowd, which appears to have waited overnight for him, is following his every step.
Suddenly a leader of the synagogue approaches Jesus. Jairus is a man of power and authority. He is accustomed to getting what he wants. His place in society affords him a certain amount of respect. There is nothing to prevent him from approaching Jesus or anyone else and making his desires known.
So the strange thing is not that Jairus approaches Jesus, the strange thing is that he bows down before him. Jairus is not accustomed to bowing down before anyone, and especially not the son of a carpenter, or a faith healer or even an itinerant preacher, or whoever it is he thinks Jesus is. What’s going on here?
Jesus stops walking and allows this unexpected interruption to slow his progress toward whatever goal he has. His curiosity is piqued, so he stops to listen. Jairus pleads with Jesus, imploring Jesus to come and heal his dying daughter. His precious twelve year old child is mortally ill. Immediately, as Mark would write, Jesus agrees to go. He changes course and the two set off together to Jairus’s home. Whatever it was that Jesus was going to do, he drops everything for this synagogue leader and his young daughter. And that in itself is remarkable when you think about it, since being both a child and a female, she has little status in their world. She is a marginal person at best.
Together, and with the crowd still following, they set out walking at a quick pace. The crowd’s interest is heightened, and as the people jostle for position, the crowd presses in on the two men. It’s noisy and hot and crowded, with people elbowing and pushing each other—both intentionally and by accident. Tempers flare a little, but then are brought down. Everyone wants to see what will happen. Everyone has heard about Jesus healing people and about his miracles, too.
Suddenly an arm reaches out behind Jesus in the crowd and touches his garment. It’s doubtful that anyone notices, people are bumping into each other everywhere. But Jesus notices. He feels the power go out of him. “Who touched me?” The disciples can’t believe their ears, “Who touched you?” they ask incredulously. “Who didn’t touch you? How can you ask such a question?”
Jesus stops, turning around to look at the crowd as he’s speaking. His eyes scan the many faces. There’s a pregnant pause, and then a woman falls to her knees, her eyes cast to the ground before him. She know that she has taken a tremendous risk in touching him. This unclean, unnamed woman just stepped into the thick of the crowd as if she belonged there, instead of in her right place, on the margins of society at the ritually correct distance from her neighbors and from her own family. Her uncontrolled bleeding renders her unclean. Untouchable. Unlovable. She has some nerve stepping into the crowd like that. By her action, she has made everyone around her unclean too.
And even more than that, she touched Jesus’ garment. By her action, she defiles Jesus. Now he can’t go with Jairus to heal his daughter. She’s made Jesus unclean, too.
But she also knows she’s healed. She feels it in her body. She knows that the blood has stopped. She’s free of her affliction. She feels lighter, her heart is soaring. Until that moment she hears Jesus ask who touched him, that is. Maybe she shouldn’t have done it after all. She begins to question herself. Just who does she think she is? She utters her confession to the ground, bracing herself for what will surely come next.
But as Jesus looks down at the woman lying at this feet, his eyes soften. “Daughter,” he says to her gently, in a voice filled with love, a voice filled with grace. “your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
Daughter. Jesus uses the same familial term for this woman as Jairus did for the girl they are hurrying to see. Daughter. Family. Not only is the woman been healed of her physical disease, she becomes whole again. She’s accepted. She is a person again. She can stand up again, holding her head high. She is a valuable member of the world around her. She is loved. It’s like forgiveness raining down on her as the disease so many blamed on sin is lifted from her. She is renewed. She is newly alive.
Before the journey can resume, some folks come from Jairus’ house bringing the terrible news that his daughter has died. There’s no need to rush. There’s no use bringing Jesus any more. It’s too late. It’s over.
Jairus’s shoulders slump, he feels like he’s been kicked hard in the stomach. He begins to reel with grief. Jesus turns to him, maybe catching him by the arm. “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus grabs Peter and James and John and Jairus and orders the crowd to stop. The five of them hurry ahead. As they come upon the house, professional mourners are all around them weeping and wailing. Jesus enters the house, and asks them why they are carrying on so. “She’s not dead,” he says, “She’s only sleeping.”
The mourners cries of sorrow change to peals of laughter. Jesus takes the parents and his disciples and goes into the room where the child lay. Softly he takes her hand into his own and gently whispers to her saying, “little girl, get up!” And she does. She walks around the room and her parents are overcome with amazement. She is healed. She returns to them. She is whole. Jesus asks them to get her something to eat. Her humanity is intact. Whatever terrible sin took her life away has been erased, forgiven. She is whole. She is renewed. Like the woman in the crowd, the little girl is newly alive.
Stories of these sorts of interruptions that bring healing in their midst happen in our day, too. A little over a week ago, Pope Francis walked into the sanctuary of the Waldensian Church in Turin, Italy. It was an historic moment. You see, despite the fact that there has been a Waldensian Church in Italy for more than 800 years, no pope has ever set foot in one. Worse, the Catholic church as persecuted and discriminated against Waldensians throughout those many centuries. Pope Francis, however, has long known of the Waldensian Church. They have been present in his native Argentina since 1853 when Italian immigrants moved there seeking a new home and bringing their religion with them. Pope Francis has known of them since he was an archbishop in Buenos Aires. In fact, he’s even admired them.
Walking into the Italian church on a Monday, he greeted the Waldensian Moderator saying this: “God will never allow human sin to have the last word. God always does something new to open a new way for us to live out our relationships with each other. This is a fact that, whoever out attitude about our shared history, we cannot avoid. On behalf of the Catholic Church, I need to ask you for forgiveness. I need to ask you for forgiveness for the non-Christian, in some cases even inhuman, attitudes and actions that in our shared history Waldensians have suffered at the hands of Catholics. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us” (translation of Pope Francis’ remarks by Duncan Hanson and is available at http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Pope-Francis-Asks-Waldensians-for-Forgiveness.html?soid=1116213273536&aid=tLa-dky6R90).
Pope Francis continued, “Our common identity in Christ has mad it possible to grasp the profound ties which already unite us in spite of our differences. Moderator Bernardini described Christian unity as “reconciled diversity.”
I wonder if we can grasp the significance of this event and of the apology offered by the Catholic Church to a group of Italian Protestants whose ancestors were hounded by the church and put to death for their beliefs. They were excommunicated. They were unclean. They were the victims of persecution.
As much as Pope Francis did announce his visit before going there, it was a sort of interruption in the history of both churches. Though there remains much work to be done, it opened a door to reconciliation that had stood shut tight for eight centuries. It is a new beginning. It holds tremendous possibilities for healing and wholeness and reconciliation.
Two days after the Pope’s historic visit to the Waldensian Church in Turin, a hate-filled young man visited the Mother AME Church in Charleston. Instead of reconciliation and healing through confession, this man brought death and destruction through his own confession of racist hatred. What he didn’t intend to bring, but what seems to be growing out of his despicable act of murder is the possibility of newness. Members of the church met this mans despicable violence with words of forgiveness. The affirm that God can and will bring good from this evil.
In a state that adopted the Confederate Flag as their banner in the 1960’s to protest the Civil Rights Act, and a state that has fiercely defended their right to fly it ever since, something unexpected happened. The governor interrupted her own pattern of though and speech and changed her mind, joining her voice to those who are asking for it to be taken down. Walmart and Amazon and others have removed the same symbol from their merchandise. Perhaps for the first time, people are really listening to those who are wounded by its presence—they are hearing the voices of people who see it as a hurtful reminder of oppression and persecution. Although the South Carolina house voted overwhelmingly to begin debating the request, time will tell if it will come down or not. Echoes of Pope Francis’ words echoed through President Obama’s grace-filled eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinkney this week, too.
Imagine if a flood of forgiveness and of self-reflection and of calls to work to end racism in our country unleashes a new life. Imagine if those who have had the privilege of power could look into the eyes of the those who have not and said something like this:
“God will never allow human sin to have the last word—not even the murder of nine people sitting in their own church. God always does something to open a new way for us to live out our relationship with each other. This is a fact, whatever our attitude about our shared history, we cannot avoid. On behalf of those who are privileged because of the whiteness of their complexion, we need to ask you for forgiveness. We need to ask you for forgiveness for the non-Christian, in some cases even inhuman, attitudes and actions that in our shared history African Americans have suffered at the hands of white Americans. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us!”
Such a statement, however it might actually be worded, would only be a first step. There is much more work to be done. The same is true for removing the flag from South Carolina’s State House. And we are not alone in our need of confession and of forgiveness.
But it would be quite a start, wouldn’t it? It would go along way to putting us in the appropriate posture to be healed by our Lord Jesus Christ, who might well declare that our faith has made all of us well. It would go along way to putting us in the appropriate posture to be able to continue listening to our black brothers and sisters whose voices have so often been silenced. It would go along way to putting us in the proper posture to step into the new way that indeed God is always opening for us. It would be an in-breaking of the kingdom of God, and one that would go along way to helping others to find their way home to the Lord.
It would certainly interrupt the status quo. It would certainly be a demonstration of doing justice, and loving kindness and walking humbling with our Lord—the one Lord of our one human family. It would be filled with grace and hope and promise. It would point us toward a new future—a new life for all of us.
All power and glory, wisdom and wonder be to the Lord our God, who strengthens us through the word and blesses us with peace. Amen.
a sermon based on Mark 4:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I’d like to read another scripture before we focus on the passage for today from Mark’s gospel. It’s the story of the first two children born to Adam and Eve. Listen once again for the Word of the Lord:
“Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:8-10).
There is a lot blood is crying out to the Lord today. So, before we do anything else, we need to pray for the nine people whose lives were cut down in the terrorist attack at Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston, SC on Wednesday night. Wednesday night. A sacred night to many congregations, including this one, when folks gather together in the house of the Lord—to enjoy fellowship with one another, to pray with one another, to rehearse music for Sunday morning with one another, to study the Word of the Lord with one another. It is a sacred night and it is not a night to die at the hands of a 21 year old white supremacist so filled with hatred and racism and violence that he would cut down nine people while sitting beside the pastor in a bible study.
So we pray for Rev. Clementa Pinckney. We pray for Cynthia Hurd. We Pray for Sharonda Singleton. We pray for Tywanza Sanders. We pray for Ethel Lance. We pray for Susie Jackson. We pray for Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. We pray for Myra Thompson. We pray for Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. We pray for their families. We pray for their congregation. And yes. We pray for the shooter and for his family. God have mercy. Christ have mercy. God have mercy. Let the church never forget. Let the church not be silent. Let the church speak out again racism, against terrorism, and against all violence. Let the church turn to the Prince of Peace to find wisdom and comfort and courage and healing. For we are indeed our brothers’ keeper and our sisters’ keeper and their blood is crying out to the Lord from the ground. Amen.
Earlier this same day, Jesus and the disciples sat in this same boat in this same water. And this same crowd stood on the shore as Jesus taught from his vantage point in this same boat, using parables to tell them about the kingdom of God. Last week, we considered one of those parables, the one about the growing seed. The kingdom of God, Jesus taught, is like a seed that is planted in the ground. Its development under the earth is unknown to us. God’s kingdom does not require our management skills or our cleverness in order to grow. Our concern is loving the Lord our God and our neighbors—sharing the gospel and living as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is working—in ways we can and cannot see. This is what the Lord requires of us: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
After teaching the disciples and the crowds these lessons about the kingdom of God, Jesus lay down in the back of the boat, and slept while the disciples navigated across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, as Jesus had requested. A couple of important notes: the church has often been pictured as a boat, Mark’s sea is more than a body of water—it is a metaphor for demonic forces, and finally—going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee means going into Gentile territory, which for these people is the equivalent of going into enemy territory.
As we know, soon after the group takes off in the boat, a great storm breaks out and the seas grow dangerously rough. To this very day, the Sea of Galilee can change from a placid reflecting pool into a storm tossed ocean of whitecaps in an instant. We also know that at least four of the men in the boat were professional fishermen whose office was the Sea of Galilee—this was not their first storm. Every time their boat left the shore, in fact, they were well aware that each voyage could be their last. Still, their many years of experience gave them the tools they needed to navigate this boat.
Yet, despite their experience, we see the disciples move into panic mode almost as quickly as the winds changed and the sea rose. To be fair, the boat is being tossed about like a toy, the waves are crashing over the gunnels and into the boat, and the men are likely hanging on for dear life. Interestingly not even the fishermen keep their cool. Then in the midst of the chaos, they remember that Jesus is with them. To their great astonishment, they find him sleeping in the stern of the boat. Sleeping—like the planter of the seed in the parable he just told them.
They shake him rather roughly—“Wake up! How can you sleep at a time like this? Don’t you even care that we are all going to die?”
It doesn’t even cross their mind to consider that by sleeping in the boat, Jesus demonstrates his confidence in these seafaring men to pilot the boat to safety on the other side.
Jesus stands up, turns his face into the wind, and speaks. “Peace.” The wind dies down. “Be still.” The waves smooth out, the sea quiets. The storm is gone.
Whatever it was that these disciples thought Jesus might do when they woke him up, it clearly was not this. Perhaps they wanted him to pray as an earlier ship full of doomed sailors woke a sleeping Jonah so that he could cry out to his God.
Using only his words, Jesus breathes the demons of the sea into control. He overpowers them, and the seas grow calm. The demons depart as surely as the unclean spirit came out of the man in Capernaum whom we in the synagogue on the sabbath in the very first chapter of Mark (Mark 1:21-28).
The disciples are astonished—who is this then that even the winds and the seas listen to him?
As with other stories in Mark, the demons of the sea appear to be well aware of who this is. We the readers are well aware of who this is. And the disciples—the same disciples to whom Jesus has just finished explaining the parables and giving them the key to the kingdom of God—these disciples have not the slightest clue of who he is.
A storm of epic proportions broke out on Wednesday night of this week. The waves crashed over the gunnels and into the very house of God in Charleston. The shooter explained his deep rooted hatred of black people, his perceived necessity to kill them, and his desire to start a racial civil war. Let us pray to God that there never needs to be a more transparent proof than this of the deep-seated racism that continues to infect this county.
The storm has taken a direct hit on the church. The church is called to respond. And Jesus is in the boat with us—even when the violence does not happen in the walls of a church building as it did on Wednesday night. But do we know that? Really?
Do we believe that Christ is present with us? Are we going to run around the boat in a panic, watching the waves roll over us and wondering whether God really cares? Are we going to try to shake God awake—or are we going to follow Christ? We must begin with prayer, yes. We must begin by understanding that by our action or by our inaction, we contribute to the climate that produces a hate-fill twenty one year old terrorist. We must understand that economic powers like the gun lobby have rendered our political system ineffective. Nothing will change if we do not work to change it.
What does that mean for us here at John Calvin? We have to discover that answer together. Each and every one of us has to decide what we are willing to do—and as a church together, we have to decide the same thing. The power for change lies within the boat. And if we are brave enough to face into the storm, I can only imagine the waves will grow bigger for awhile. The status quo does not like to be disturbed. Can we weather the storm? This work is neither easy nor popular. But I don’t think we can quietly watch anymore either.
I do know that we are not alone in the boat. Jesus Christ is with us. Jesus has equipped us and taught us and given us what we need to make a difference. Are we willing to turn to him and ask him to work wonders in ways we cannot even imagine?
So I ask you, even as I ask myself: what can we do? We face an enormous and serious problem, and it can be overwhelming. As we know, you can’t change Rome in a day. But we can begin making a difference, even now, by approaching it one small step at a time. We can challenge the narrative we hear every day. We can speak up when we hear it. Ask questions. Start a conversation. Help someone see things differently. And whatever we do, we can do it in the strength of the Lord, who is present right here with us in the back of our boat.
Thanks be to God All power and glory, wisdom and wonder be to the Lord our God, who strengthens us through the word and blesses us with peace. Amen.
a sermon based on Mark 4:26-29
May the Word of God be spoken, may the Word of God be heard, may the Word of God be done. Amen.
It will come as no surprise to hear me say that Jesus just loves parables! Parables. They are word picture puzzles: created in the language of local life, colored in the activities of daily life, filled to the brim with meaning and lesson; challenge and promise, and tied together with ribbons of mystery. They are at the same time straight forward and deeply perplexing. They have both one meaning and many meanings. Parables are impossible to tame. They push against our paradigms, challenging us to look at them, and at the world around us in a new way.
In his book, The Power of Parables, John Dominic Crossan defines a parable as a metaphorical story that “always points externally beyond itself, points to some different and much wider referent. Whatever its actual content is, a parable is never about that content. Whatever its internal subject, a parable always points you toward and wants you to go to some external referent” (John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), p. 9).
In other words, this parable about a person who sowed a seed, the seed itself, and the resulting harvest is pointing to something beyond itself that is not about a person who sowed a seed, the seed itself, and the resulting harvest. It is a metaphorical story told by Jesus to challenge the people listening to change their thinking and their expectations about the kingdom of God.
According to Mark’s gospel, earlier in this same chapter, the purpose of Jesus’ parables is this:
To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that they ‘may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11-12). And then Jesus unpacks the meaning for these same twelve disciples who do not understand the parable Jesus just told, in spite of the implication that they already have the secret of the kingdom of God, and should therefore already understand the parable.
To me this is both quite comforting, since I’m not sure that I understand the parables either, and at least a little troubling, since I’m not sure that I understand the parables either.
The first parable in this chapter of Mark’s gospel is the one of the sower who scatters seed liberally, without paying much attention to the condition of the soil upon which the seed lands. There is a variety of results, from strong, flourishing plants to spindly dried up roots and branches to seed that never opens, but ends up in the bellies of birds.
Next comes the question about the purpose of a lamp—light—which Jesus is sharing with the crowds and disciples by using parables. He tells them he is putting the lamp on a lamp stand so that its light can be seen by all and his teachings can be understood. “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” and “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to 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 4:23-25).
Oh yeah. Now I get it…not! That seems about as clear as mud!
Then we come to the passage we just read. Another parable. This time the components of the story are: a seed scatterer, the seed, the passage of a period of time marked by night and day, the activities of sleeping and rising, and the period of the harvest, when the grain is ripe and the farmer uses a sickle to harvest the grain.
As with all parables, there are a variety of ways to approach this one and each will yield a lesson for us:
If we look at it from the perspective of the planter/harvester, the lesson might be that the activities of planting and harvesting should be the focus of our actions. In some way, we scatter seed on the ground—do we do this through our daily life? through deliberate teaching or preaching? or is it a natural outcome of our calling to follow Christ. In other words—is this something we do consciously or unconsciously? In any case, once the seed has been scattered, it appears that we have no role in the middle. We sleep and rise up night and day, having no interaction with the planted seed. Until the time of the harvest, when the planter shows up again with his sickle.
Now, I don’t know about you—but a lot of the time, I am all about the middle! When I’m not careful, I begin to think that it must all depend on me in some fashion. Surely I need to be doing something—perhaps pulling out the weeds, for example. The church loves to do this—we judge one another, we look around to find those who don’t measure up in our estimation, and then we pronounce God’s judgment on them—or at least we convince ourselves that we need to convince them to change. The extreme example of this kind of thing can be seen in the folks from the Westboro Church who took this to such an extreme that long ago they left any semblance of Christianity far behind.
Do we have work to do as disciples of Jesus Christ? Yes. Discipleship charges us to be loving the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Not just our neighbor who lives nearby or who looks like us or even who attends our own church—but all of our neighbors: rich and poor; black and white; friend and enemy—it’s a very tall order. However, we deceive ourselves and we loose our humility when we begin to believe that the arrival or the realization of the kingdom of God depends on us in any way.
Jesus tells us over and over that the kingdom of God is already here. When we serve others in the name of Christ, when we proclaim the Word of God, when we affirm the sovereignty of God—when we live out our calling, then the kingdom of God comes near and can be glimpsed by us and by those we serve.
Let’s take another approach to the parable. What if we look at it from the perspective of the scattered seed? What is the seed? Jesus’ identified the seed as the kingdom of God in the first seed parable of this chapter. Here, the seed is put into the ground by someone, but what happens in the ground is separate. It does not depend on the planter in any way.
Imagine what it might have looked like to live in Israel during the time of Jesus. The kingdom belonged to Rome, who wielded its power over the people freely. The local population of Jews had no power over their own destiny. Taxes were extracted and sent to Rome, with a healthy cut going to sycophant among them who colluded with Rome to collect the tax money.
Then along comes Jesus, announcing that the kingdom of God had come near. We might not be able to hear the depth of the subversive nature of this announcement. This phrase falls pleasantly on our ears, however it was a treasonous statement in its day. It announced that God had usurped the throne of the emperor, a statement that would hardly have been tolerated by those with power to lose. We know this, because in fact, statements like this are what brought Jesus to be nailed to the cross.
But in spite of its dangerous content—what did it look like to the people of the land when Jesus made this fantastic claim? How did the arrival of the kingdom of God change the outcome for the people of God? The answer is not at all—not in practical terms anyway. Jesus’ proclamation did nothing to loosen Rome’s grip on power. It did nothing to bring autonomy back to the temple or to the political arena. To the people of the day, it was probably difficult to take Jesus’ promise to heart. At the same time, maybe picturing the kingdom as a seed buried deep in the soil where no one can see the miraculous growth and transformation it is already undergoing led them to hold onto hope and risk believing Jesus’ words.
Speaking to a world waiting for a cataclysmic intervention by a warrior-Messiah who would come wielding a mighty sword to overthrow the Roman Empire, Jesus taught an entirely different reality. Crossan also writes of Jesus’ paradigm-shifting message about the kingdom of God: “You have been waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it” (Crossan, p. 127).
This same metaphor continues to hold promise in our day, too. The kingdom of God is beyond our understanding. It grows and spreads and comes into being through powers beyond our knowledge. How God works is a mystery to us. And like the original audience to this parable, we wait for the harvest.
So let’s conclude by thinking about the metaphor of the harvest. This is the time of year when the fullness of the seed is apparent. The plant is mature, the fruit is ripe. We find sustenance. We find life. We are fed.
Friends, hear the good news: The kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God is near. We are free to live in the kingdom now—loving and serving others. Let us keep watch for the harvest, when this same kingdom of God will come in its fullness.
All power and glory, wisdom and wonder be to the Lord our God, who strengthens us through the word and blesses us with peace. Amen.
a sermon based on Genesis 3:8-15 and Mark 3:20-35
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Evening arrives. The sun sinks into the west, heralding a time of peace and relief from the oft-times relentless sun. Soft breezes blowing gently, the rustling of leaves brushing against one another fills the air. Birds sing an avian “taps” to signify the end of the day. Dots of light flicker in the night air as fireflies begin their nightly dance. The temperature falls, a welcome respite from the heat of the sun. The cooler air is ripe with the scent of evening flowers. As the business of night begins for nocturnal dwellers, we daytime creatures welcome this slowing down after a busy day.
Listen for the sounds of the evening as God strolls through the garden in search of his beloved Adam and Eve. Living in God’s garden, they have all they need. All around them, tree branches hang heavy with fruit. Hear the nearby babble of brooks filled with clear cold water. All of creation is in harmony. Looking around, we see just over on the other side of the nearest brook, the branches of a bush move tellingly in the evening shadows. Cowering behind it, trying to hide themselves and to conceal their nakedness, we see the man and the woman. We see them, and immediately we know—things are not as they ought to be. Something is out of control here.
“Where are you?” sings out the beloved and familiar voice of their God.
You know the story—Judy just read it. The man and the woman have both eaten of the only tree in the entire garden they were not to touch. Each has passed the buck—neither one willing to take responsibility—and a snake bears the brunt of God’s anger. We know beyond the snake’s punishment, too. Right after cursing the snake, God turns his attention to Adam and to Eve. They will be punished and evicted from the Garden of Eden—forced to make a life in a much harsher world than the one they know.
“Original sin” we’ve come to call the story. We understand the disappointment of God—the anger, even. Come on, we think to ourselves—what were you thinking? Could you not just leave the tree alone? You had everything! If I were you….
And, I dare say, if we were writing the story, it would probably end right there. Adam and Eve got what they had coming, didn’t they? God was right to wash his hands of them. Time to start over with someone else.
But of course, this is not the end…the Bible has just begun—there’s plenty more after this. And while we might expect the Bible to tell the story of how these people, and others like them, attempt to make up for their mistake—atone for their sin—as theologians might term it, perhaps that’s not really it at all.
The most surprising thing about this story, and all of the ones that follow it, is that it is actually a story of God’s stubborn, steadfast love. God simply will not give up. Ever. Through prophets and kings and priests and others, God is constantly reaching out in love to the broken creation. Perhaps the story is not so much about original sin, or the fall, as it is about our frail human nature that simply cannot stay away from the tree. Perhaps it is told so that every time we find ourselves cowering behind a bush trying to hide from God knowing that we have once again fallen short—every time—we can find hope and a reason to come out into the open again. God is still strolling in the garden. God is still calling out to us: “Where are you?”
Fast forward with me to another evening: the end of a crazy busy day. The sun sinks into the hills, the moon is visible in the evening sky. The last light glows brightly as if someone took a can of red paint and splashed it across the horizon. The birds sing their evening lullaby while the cicadas sound the strains of their reveille. People scurry home; the promise of dinner and a quiet evening with family and friends beckons them as they leave their workplace.
God strolls through the streets hungry and tired from a long day, God is looking for dinner. No peaceful garden this time—instead a frenzied crowd presses in on him. Arriving at the house, Jesus and those with him find such a throng of people that they cannot even eat the evening meal. The crowd will not abate. People cry out in voices full of need and despair and hope. Heal me! Let me see! Make me whole again! And even Love me! Touch me! Let me touch you! See me!
The scene is chaotic; things are out of control. These people have been hounding Jesus for miles. As Jesus travels through the countryside healing folks and casting out demons, the crowd surges, following his every move. No doubt about it. This is going to attract the attention of the Roman authorities—Herod or maybe Pilate. And the temple authorities will likely have something to say about it, too.
On the other side of town, several blocks away, word reaches Jesus’ family. “He’s at it again!” the neighbors tell them. “You’ve got to do something about him. We don’t want the authorities coming and telling all of us how to live. They might impose a curfew. Or prevent us from gathering together for anything anymore.”
Evaluating the situation, Jesus’ family realizes that he must have lost his mind. What is he thinking? He’s surrounding himself with a bad crowd, and now there are lepers and unclean people and women and sinners all following him. He must be insane. Going to get him, they hope that if they can just get away to the beach with Jesus for a few days of R and R, maybe things will calm down again. Maybe he’ll be alright. And anyway, they can’t risk the public shame and humiliation that would be certain to fall on them if Jesus doesn’t come to his senses and stop hanging out with such riffraff.
Jesus’ family are not the only ones upset by his behavior and his choice of friends. The scribes come down from Jerusalem to confront him, too. This guy has a demon, they think to themselves. And not just any demon, but Beelzebub—we’d better warn everyone else. So they travel along the road, casting their accusations and assumptions as they go.
Three groups of people pursue the Lord this summer night. A crowd of people who desperately need him, his own family who want to help him regain his right mind, and the scribes of the temple who want to exorcise the demons who have clearly possessed him and made him turn away from God’s obvious will.
All of them are surprised by Jesus. Jesus is doing things that have not been done before. Jesus claims to follow God, but he leads others down an unknown road, very different from the familiar religious roads of the day. The scribes are accustomed to the people coming to the temple in Jerusalem, each bringing the appropriate sacrifice which God requires in order to forgive them. Jesus should be following tradition—he should be going to first-century divinity school and writing his ordination exams. He should be working from within the system, and keeping that system intact while doing so. After all, this was the way God told them to do things.
Jesus’ mother and brothers can’t make much more sense of Jesus than the scribes can. He is acting so strangely, defying their family, cultural, and religious values. He is touching people he should not touch. He is talking to people he should not talk to. He is helping people who should be helping themselves. That’s how God wants things to be. That’s why there are purity laws and other rules to regulate family and society. He must be out of his mind.
But they are wrong. It is true that God-in-the-flesh is not going about business as usual. In the incarnation, God is doing something totally new. God is still seeking people with the same stubborn, steadfast love we saw in the garden. In Jesus Christ, God is reaching into the world in a new way—God’s love is extended way beyond the walls of the temple and the edges of proper society.
And those who are in the best position to see God—Jesus own family and the temple leaders—are utterly blind to what God is doing. Like so many before them and after them, they are invested in keeping the status quo. They work to keep God in a box just large enough so that they can understand what God is doing and what they are to do in response. As long as God stays where he is, the system can prevail.
Now let’s not be too hard on these people—Jesus’ family and the scribes. Their intentions are okay—they want to please God. The problem is that they have stopped looking to God in a way that expects new things. The problem is that they think they have God all figured out. The problem is that they think they have to defend or protect God. In fact, the problem might just be that they have made God in their own image.
We live in a time when things often seem out of control, too. Things are changing, and change is happening pretty rapidly. New winds are blowing. It’s not always easy to tell which are good and which are not. It’s not always easy to see where God might be at work doing something new (which, by the way, seems to be God’s modus operandi) and when powers of evil or destruction might be at work.
Should the government be listening in on our phone calls? Can county commissioners actually work for good, even if they don’t pray a Christian invocation during their meeting? What about the hot button topics of the day? Can magistrates refuse to grant marriage licenses or to perform weddings for same sex couples if they so choose? What about pastors and churches? Can we really imagine God doing something new in our time, too?
Jesus’ answers to his family and to the scribes leave a lot of room for God to work. Not only does Jesus pick apart the absurdity of the scribes’ claim that he is casting out demons by Beezlebub, he warns them against the destruction of a house divided against itself. By house, Jesus can also mean both the temple itself (the house of God) and his home. We are so prone to take our eyes off the big picture of God’s kingdom to argue and divide ourselves over smaller issues. What color carpet should the sanctuary have? Who can be ordained? Our denomination and others are divided against themselves as churches seek dismissal, focusing on disagreement instead of agreement, rather that finding ways to proclaim good news to the world around us.
Yet even then, good news remains, spilling over from the first pages of the bible: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.”
How? By coming to God in humble repentance. By admitting mistakes and meanness and hurtful actions and by asking for forgiveness. By seeking the Spirit’s direction, and looking for the Spirit’s work around us. Jesus leaves the door to forgiveness pretty wide open. Yet he doesn’t take the door off the hinges: “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Jesus is speaking to the religious authorities here, not to the crowds. He’s talking to us, the church. We cannot squelch the Spirit of God. We cannot stand in the way of newness. We cannot deny God’s Spirit or call something evil that God is doing. We must be careful. We must remain humble, expectantly looking to see where God is working. We cannot squelch the Holy Spirit in an effort to protect God or to speak for God.
Jesus’ family-based answer is also important. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” This is a wide open invitation to discipleship—and a clear call for us to focus on what holds us together—faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and to let go of the things that might divide us. Together in Christ, let our focus be on doing the will of God. And may we have eyes to see where the Spirit is doing something new and completely out of our control. Amen.
a sermon for the transfiguration, based on Mark 9:2-10
May the Word of God be spoken; may the Word of God be heard; may the Word of God be done. Amen.
Every year, we finish this short season of Ordinary Time with a day honoring the story we call the transfiguration. The synoptic gospels—that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—each include an account of this story. This season began with the story of the Epiphany, the journey of the magi who follow a star to discover the infant king of the Jews. Often the name Epiphany is given to this whole season of Ordinary Time that falls between Christmas and Lent. And why not? This Epiphany season is a time for us to come to understand who this Jesus is—an answer so complex that it takes us a lifetime of Epiphany moments to even begin to understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and what it means for us—all of us.
The transfiguration is arguably the third epiphany we’ve read this season. In Mark’s gospel, however, it is the second. This gospel opens at breakneck speed, revealing an adult Jesus who is first recognized by John the Baptist. And at verse nine of the gospel, Mark takes a total of only three verses to describe the first epiphany—the baptism of Jesus. As Jesus comes 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” (Mark 1:10-11).
In those two verses, we find not only the Son of God, but the Father and the Holy Spirit as well. And this theophany, this in-breaking of God, is a revelation for Jesus alone. There is no suggestion in Mark’s text that anyone but Jesus saw this vision of the Holy Spirit or heard the voice from heaven speaking. Only Jesus and the reader know what happened.
In the time between that reading and the one for today, there have been other epiphany moments, too. Following immediately on the heels of his baptism, Mark tells us that Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit were he was tempted by Satan. Slipped between the words, and easily missed, is another epiphany—apparently Satan is aware of who Jesus is, too.
Next, Jesus calls his first disciples by calling out, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” A curious statement no doubt, called out to these men whose profession is fishing. While Mark does not record it, there must have been some sort of an epiphany that happened, because Mark does write this: Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18).
After this, we find out that the demons know who Jesus is—both in the synagogue and at the home of Simon and Andrew. In both of these places, Jesus silences the demons because they recognize him. The only other person who seems to recognize Jesus is neither one of the disciples nor one of the religious leaders; it’s Simon’s mother-in-law who rises up to serve Jesus and the disciples after he removes her fever and restores her health. Last week we noted that her response of service was the same word from which the term deacon is derived.
All of this brings us to today’s story—the mountaintop experience of Jesus witnessed by Elijah and Moses and Peter and James and John. It is important to note that Mark tells this story immediately after Peter’s declaration to answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am,” Responding to the light Peter has seen in Jesus, he boldly says, “You are the Messiah.” And Jesus orders Peter and the disciples with him not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:29-30). Jesus then tells them that he will undergo great suffering and be killed and after three days he will rise again. Peter objects strongly, rebuking Jesus, who in turn rebukes Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). In spite of Peter’s bold, and accurate statement about who Jesus is, it is clear that Peter does not yet understand who Jesus is. The light of his own ideas has blinded his vision of Jesus, whom he expects to meet the culture’s expectations of a Messiah.
So six days later, Jesus gathers Peter and James and John and leads them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And then something tremendously spectacular happens. Mark, whose Jesus is the most human of the four gospels, tells us of a divine encounter that not only reveals Jesus’ divinity in some way, but utterly changes the disciples understanding of Jesus—even though they won’t know what has happened for some time to come.
In this mountaintop experience, the description of Jesus’ dazzling clothes and appearance is full of light. offering the disciples a glimpse of his true nature—in the form of a theophany very much like the one we saw at Jesus’ baptism. Father, Son and Holy Spirit made manifest to the disciples and testifying to Jesus’ identity. First, however, Elijah and Moses gather around Jesus, the law and the prophets—the pillars of Israel—confirm Jesus’ place in the story of God’s people. Peter blurts out an offer to build three tents—and then the Spirit envelopes them as a cloud and a voice from heaven—the same voice from heaven actually, speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And as the cloud lifts and the disciples look, only Jesus is standing there with them.
Up until now, every time I’ve considered this story, I’ve assumed that the focus of it is the transfiguration of Jesus. And he is transfigured—his clothes become dazzling white, blinding actually—he looks very different to the eyes of the disciples than ever before. He is changed. He is new.
But now, I think maybe there’s another transfiguration we might think about. And that’s the transfiguration of the disciples themselves. They have seen something utterly new. They have experienced something not of this world—at least not that we can see. They have stood in the presence of God and they have heard the audible Word of the Lord, spoken by a voice from heaven. How can they not be transformed? How can they not be changed?
Paul speaks of transfiguration, too. Metamorphes, change, new, transformation:
Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
And writing to the disciples in Rome he says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
As the disciples and Jesus walked back down the mountain after that extraordinary event, Jesus commanded his disciples to say nothing about it until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead—as he had taught these same disciples would happen at Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. The transfiguration cannot be understood apart from the resurrection. Jesus cannot be understood apart from the resurrection.
Mark’s writes the account of the transfiguration only after the resurrection. In the moments that followed their descent from the mountain, it would have been impossible for Peter and James and John to have understood their experience. “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”? Listen to what, whey probably wondered. Jesus had not said a single word to them on the mountain. The disciples were still blinded by the light of Jesus. They were unable to grasp the meaning of their experience.
Not until the resurrection occurred is it likely that Peter and James and John might have thought about the words Jesus had said to them six days before the transfiguration when Peter had made his bold declaration. The disciples’ blindness was diminished in the light of the resurrection. At the moment of the transfiguration, Peter blurted, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” In his lingering blindness, Peter determined to preserve his present understanding of Jesus forever. By offering to build three dwellings—actually the word is tabernacles, suggesting places of worship—Peter and the disciples could simply freeze this moment and their present understanding for all time. No room for change. No room for new understanding. No room for transfiguration. No room for being unblinded by the light of a new teaching or a new understanding.
In calling Jesus the Messiah, Peter meant the Messiah of Israel’s expectations. The mighty warrior from God who would defeat the Romans and return control of Israel to God’s people. The Messiah who would raise up a mighty army to fight the armies of Rome.
In hearing Peter’s declaration, Jesus taught that he was indeed the Messiah. And that he would suffer and would die a humiliating death at the hands of Rome and be buried in a tomb. And then on the third day, he would rise again from the grave, and everything and everyone would be utterly transformed forever.
It is only in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the early morning outside the empty tomb that we can understand who Jesus is. Only then is Jesus transfigured before our eyes and we are utterly changed forever. Only then do we, along with Peter, James and John, begin to understand what happened on that mountain. And only then are we in turn able to understand what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Our transformation begins and we are changed and transformed over and over again as the Holy Spirit envelopes us and a voice from heaven speaks to us saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”
Even when we don’t want to hear what he says. Even when we don’t want to be transformed. Listen. The Spirit of God always surrounds us. The voice from heaven is always speaking. And we are always being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ Jesus himself. We will always be tempted to put up a tabernacle, to try to stay where we are, but that is not the way of the Lord. Let us continue the journey, looking to Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God who will continue to shine new light into our lives and challenging us to change and to grow in him. Thanks be to God. Amen.