Hearts for Justice

Psalm 23 & John 10

Many years ago, while I was working as a student-chaplain in a large hospital, I had an unforgettable experience with the Twenty-Third Psalm. You see, I was paged one evening to attend to a person who was dying. When I arrived in her room, she wasn’t awake, but standing beside her bed was a middle-aged woman who described herself as the woman’s caregiver. Upon further discussion, I discovered that the dying woman was Jewish. The caregiver, a self-described “nominal Christian,” was concerned about praying for her since she, and I as well, wanted to honor her faith tradition. So, we decided to pray from a common text of our two faiths: The Old Testament. And specifically, the Twenty-Third Psalm.

Now, let me pause here in the story and share something. Over the course of my twenty plus years as a pastor, there have been numerous occasions when an apparently unconscious person, begins to mouth the Lord’s Prayer or a favorite Hymn on their death bed. But what happened next was truly amazing. As the caregiver and I recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, the dying Jewish woman opened her eyes, just a bit, and a slight smile crossed her face. Not a smile of glee or great joy, but it seemed to me to be a smile of assurance, as if she understood that everything would be alright.

Now, upon reflection and further study, I learned that the Twenty-Third Psalm is considered by Judaism as one of the great poems of King David, and, as in our own faith tradition, it’s considered one of the most comforting passages in all of Scripture.

But why is it so comforting?

Well, I would suggest that it has something to do with the image of a shepherd. A shepherd tends the sheep, right? She keeps them safe and provides for their security. She makes sure they are cared for and fed. But even more than that, a good shepherd, knows and loves the sheep in her charge. Which is a not-so-subtle transition to our gospel passage for today, John 10: Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Now, as comforting as the image of a shepherd can be, I would like to focus today on the concept of Jesus as good.  But in order to do that we must begin with a brief word study on the meaning of term “good.” Good, first of all, can refer to “technical proficiency.” In other words, being efficient at one’s job or effective as a parent or whatever. In this sense, to say that someone is good is to say that they produce a good product or desirable outcome.

Okay. But as we look at our gospel text for today, I don’t think John was complementing Jesus on this sheep-tending skills. Something else must be at play. And that something else is a second and more relevant meaning of the word “good.” Good, as we see it used here, describes the character of a person and the relationships that emerge from that character.”[i] The term good, then, can be understood as living morally, compassionately, or selflessly.

So, when John elevated the description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd to one of only seven “I Am” statements in this book, it tells us not only this it’s important, but that it must necessarily indicate an attribute of God. You see, when Jesus says “I Am..” such as I am the True Light, or I Am Living Water, or I Am the Bread of Life… He is describing a bit of what God is like. How do we know this? Well, remember the whole burning bush thing back in Exodus? Moses asked God for God’s name and God said, “I Am who I am.”

Well, John is intentionally and clearly creating a equivocation between Jesus and God. In the Prologue to the book, John said, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus, of course, was the Word.

So, the character of Jesus, what he says and how he lives, is a reflection of the character of God. So, the shepherd then, Jesus, is fundamentally “good.” He’s good not in the sense of being proficient at something, although I’m sure he was skilled a great many ways, rather, Jesus the Shepherd was good in character just as God’s character or nature is fundamentally good.

Now, this is important to us because we, as people of faith, are called to be a reflection of God, to be Christ-like, to actually “be good” itself in the world around us. And through my experience with the dying Jewish woman, I have come to realize that no matter what name we use to describe the divine, whether it’s God or Father or Mother, or Creator, or whether it’s Yahweh, or the Sacred, or Allah, or whatever… over and over again, in every sacred text of every major religion, we that the fundamental nature of God is good.

Now, let’s pause here for a moment and address the elephant in the room. In the Quran, in the Torah, in the Hebrew Scriptures shared by Judaism and Christianity, and in the New Testament of our own Bible, we sometimes see a vengeful and violent portrayal of God. So, how do we reconcile a God whom the writer of I John says “is love itself” with the God of wrath we read about? In other word, how can we proclaim that God is good, that God seeks justice and liberation and equity for all people, when some passages of Scripture suggest otherwise?

Great question and it’s not an easy on to deal with. But, with that being said, I think the most valuable way of understanding this disparity comes to us for the late Marcus Borg. When speaking on this very subject, he emphatically held that the bible is finally a human product.

He wrote, “…it contains the voices of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity. It tells us about their experiences of God, their thoughts about God, their understandings of what life with God is about, their praise and prayers, and their wisdom. We hear their voices, their witness, and their testimony. And their limited understandings, their blindness and conventions, and their desire for protection and vengeance against their enemies. It’s all there.”[ii]

What a brilliant way to understanding the Bible. Far too often we’ve been led to believe that the Bible is a divine product, as if it was somehow written by God. But in reality, the Bible is a human product, written by people who were inspired by their experience of the divine, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in their time and context, and as defined by their culture. The Bible, when seen in this way, opens to us the experiences of our forbearers, to their fear and doubt, their insecurities, and their need for vengeance. But it also illuminates for us the presence of God that they felt as they faced these challenges and attempted to be and do better; as they attempted to be good.

So, my friends, it’s with this understanding of the Bible and with the realization that the nature of God is finally good, that we are naturally, and unmistakably led, to a desire be and do better ourselves. We have a term for this: Justice. Justice is about being aware of the needs of others and then doing whatever it takes to fulfill those needs. Justice, like God, is in and of itself, fundamentally good. That’s why we’re called, as people of faith, to have hearts for justice. But not only hearts, we are challenged to have hands that serve, feet that march, minds that think, and voices that advocate for justice, liberation, and equality for all people and for the conservation of this planet. I don’t know how to say it any plainer.

My friends, as we continue to propagate hearts for justice, as we continue to heal as a nation, and as we continue to recover as a world, my hope and prayer for all of us, is that we will be safe, that we will be well, and that we will remember the assurance of the Twenty Third Psalm, that God is our shepherd, the Good Shepherd, and God’s justice is the justice we seek for the most vulnerable among us, for the most marginalized and oppressed, for the stranger, for the refugee and the immigrant, for the lonely and the hopeless, and for this fragile planet. God’s justice seeks the good. May we seek it as well.

This is my prayer.

Amen & Amen.


[i] Feasting on the Gospels. John Vol. 2. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Westminster John Know Press, 2015) pgs. 14-18

[ii] Marcus J. Borg. (Quote from a posting on marcusjborg.org January 22, 2014)

One Great Hour

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.

Do you remember the old fable called Stone Soup? There are many versions of this story, but essentially, it’s about a hungry traveler who came upon a village carrying nothing but an empty cooking pot. Upon his arrival, however, he discovered that the villagers were unwilling to share any of their food. So, the traveler hatched a plan. He filled his pot with water, dropped in a large stone, and placed it over a fire. Now, one of the villagers became curious and asked him what he was doing. The traveler answered that he was making “stone soup.”  “Stone soup,” he said, “tastes better than anything else in the whole world and that he would be delighted to share it with the entire village.” “But there’s one problem,” he continued, “it still needs a little bit of garnish to improve the flavor.”

Now, the villager, who anticipated enjoying a share of the soup, didn’t mind donating a few carrots. And as the story progresses, we see the same thing happen over and over again, as more villagers become curious about the soup pot, each, in the end, adding another ingredient. Finally, when the soup was ready, the stone was removed, and the delicious pot of soup was enjoyed by traveler and villagers alike. What’s the moral of this fable? The value of sharing.

Now, in a very real sense, this is also the moral of our gospel text for today. Looking at the immediate context, the verses previous to our reading for today, we see Jesus convince 5000 people to share their provisions with each other. The generosity that Jesus inspired among those crowded on the wilderness hillside that day is the real miracle that this narrative points us toward.  

Now, bearing this in mind, we come to today’s narrative. Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake, only to find that the crowd had followed them there. When they approached him, he abruptly accused them of seeking “food that doesn’t last.”  In a sense, he said they followed him not because of the miracle of generosity they had witnessed and participated in just the day before, instead, Jesus accused the crowd of following him only because their tummies had been filled. In other words, they were focused on their personal needs, their immediate gratification, rather than the health and wholeness of the entire community. This is why Jesus was upset with them.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, I would contend that we sometimes fall into this trap as well. We sometimes, individually and historically as a nation, we have sometimes focused on our immediate gratification, on our personal gain, rather than the health and wholeness of the “other” whoever the “other” may be.

This is why God’s grace exists. This is way Lent is important. Grace exists and Lent is important because it provides us with the opportunity to reflect, realize our shortcomings, and then turn around, correcting our way of thinking, and in turn, our behavior.  

The most relevant and current example of this is the “American Rescue Plan.” Now, before I continue, it’s important to understand that I’m not promoting one political party over the other and I’m not saying that this 1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package is perfect by any means. No bill passed by either party is ever perfect or contains every things they wanted. But, that being said, this is the first legislation in my lifetime, or in a very long time anyway, that prioritizes the poor over the rich.

And this is big! Why? Because over the course of many, many years, we, the United Church of Christ and both of our local congregations, have participated in acts of justice. We’ve literally fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the lonely, and comforted the grieving. We’ve generously donated our time, our talent, our hearts and souls, and our wealth to help people we know in our communities and people across the nation and globe whom we will never meet. And today, we are invited to participate once again in the One Great Hour of Sharing offering. OGHS demonstrates for us the value of sharing our resources and what it mean to be the Church beyond ourselves.  

The American Rescue Plan, however, represents a step beyond what we can do and individuals or even as congregations. It moves past local justice efforts, and begins to address the issues of social justice. It’s like the vison statement of both the Cable and Delta churches says: “United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.” This is a good reminder of who we are and what we stand for. Remember, in addition to that vision statement, we also adopted purpose and mission statements along with a proclamation that coincide with the UCC statements adopted by the General Synod.

Our purpose is “to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.” Our mission statement is “United in Spirit and inspired by God’s grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.” And finally, we proclaim that to “be the Church” we must “protect the environment, care for the poor, forgive often, reject racism, love God, fight for the powerless, embrace diversity, share earthly and spiritual resources, and enjoy this life.”

Share earthly and spiritual resources. Isn’t this reflective of Jesus message? Isn’t this the moral philosophy that the stone soup fable offer us? And isn’t this finally what the majority of the American Rescue Act is all about? The value of sharing?

My friends, as the pandemic continues to subside, and as our economy continues to recover, I pray that all of you are safe, well, and continue to move in the direction of justice, both on a personal and congregational level, and by advocating for a wider social justice, seeking equality, health and wholeness, for all people and all of God’s beautiful creation.

Amen and Amen.

Beginnings

John 1:1-18 CEB (Italic added for emphasis)

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. A man named John was sent from God. He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him everyone would believe in the light. The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world. The light was in the world, and the world came into being though the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light. The light came to his own people, and his own people didn’t welcome him. But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children, born not of blood nor from human desire or passion, but born from God. The Word become flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s own son, full of grace and truth. John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘he who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’” From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being though Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God [but Jesus] has made God known.

Beginnings

The text we have before us today is the beginning of John’s account of the life of Jesus. And as we’ve noted before, John is a different kind of animal when it comes to telling the story. Eugene Peterson in the introduction to John’s Gospel in The Message Study Bible creatively describes how John differs from the other three gospel accounts. “Matthew, Mark, and Luke write like kayakers on a swiftly flowing river with occasional patches of white water,” he writes. “There’s never any doubt that they’re going where the course of the river takes them. But John is more like a canoe on a quiet lake, drifting unhurriedly, paddling leisurely to take in the sights along the shoreline, noticing rock formations, observing a blue heron fish in the rushes, pausing and drifting to sketch cloud patterns reflected in the glassy water. “[i]

So, let’s climb into our canoe and begin drifting upon the smoothly flowing rhythms of John’s prose. How? Well, let’s begin at the beginning. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God is presented as speaking the world into existence. You remember the first creation myth. God speaks a word and it happens: heaven and earth, oceans and streams, trees and grass, birds and fish, animals and human beings, everything seen and unseen, are called into being by God’s spoken word. Now, in a deliberate parallel to the open words of Genesis, John presents God as speaking salvation into existence. This time, however, God’s Word takes on human form and enters history in the person of Jesus. [ii] “The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” (1:14).

And this is where the focus of this gospel begins to take shape. The Incarnate One, Jesus, also speaks a word and it happens: forgiveness and healing, illumination, mercy and grace, joy and love, liberation, freedom and resurrection. You see, for John, Jesus is God and God is especially present in Jesus. And this presence, while mysterious in nature, has been from the beginning and will always be.

So, the bottom line here is that John views the incarnation of Jesus as more than just a single moment in time. John is concerned with what happened before and what will come after. In our text for today he writes, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning.” (1:1-2) But, as I said, he was also concerned about what would happen in the future. In chapter 14 he writes, “I won’t leave you as orphans. I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you will live too.” (14:18-19) He goes on in that chapter to say, “I have spoken these things while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.” (14:25-26).[iii]

But what does all this mean for us? Well, as I was preparing this message, and with this emphasis of incarnation in the back of my mind, I was struck by the use of the word “being.” John writes, “Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” (1:3) Okay. Why’s this important? Well, the Greek verb that’s used here has a wide range of meanings, but the essence is that of “coming into existence.” But that’s not the most interesting part. This verb also expresses an on-going action. In other word, “to continue to be.”

So, that’s the nerdy way of saying that the Word not only spoke salvation into history, but the Word as Advocate, as Holy Spirit, continues to speak salvation into our lives still today. And this all makes perfect sense when we consider verse 4. John writes, “What came into being was life, and the life was the light for all people.” (1:3b-4) “The life” that John speaks of here encompasses the past, present, and future. Like creation itself, salvation is on-going, ever-evolving, continually in the process of being and becoming more.

However, we’ve often been led to believe that salvation is some sort of a “one-and-done” deal. I choose Christ, or accept him, or take him into my heart, whatever verbiage that particular congregation uses, and that seems to be it, with the possible exception of “bringing others to Christ.” Now, please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not casting shade on anyone else’s beliefs. There are many paths up the mountain. I firmly believe that. But what I am offering is another way of viewing salvation. Salvation as an on-going process.

Now, in order to wrap our minds around this concept of salvation maybe we should return to Peterson’s image of the kayak vs. the canoe, but with a twist. I would offer that salvation is like that canoe on the quiet lake. Drifting, paddling once in a while, taking in all the sounds, smells, and feelings along the way. You see, in this way of thinking, this theology, the incarnate presence of God is around and though and within the entire journey. In other words, God isn’t something that’s down the river only to be encountered at the end of a single day of kayaking. But instead, I contend that God is in the bird songs; God is in the warm sunshine that we feel on our face and the cool water dripping from our fingers; God is in the feeling of sheer joy that the day imbues. A bit of God, my friends, is within each of us and within each and every living thing. And as we journey through this life, as we paddle leisurely around our lakes, we would do well to slow down and enjoy each of these sacred moments.

John understood this. John understood that life was eternal, that life was on-going, and John understood that Jesus represented life itself. You see, for John, Jesus’ life was the light for all people. “The light,” he says, “that shines in the darkness.” And what this tells me, as we continue to face the challenges of our times, is that within our on-going, ever-in-process, lives of faith and salvation, there is hope. Hope because there is a light shining in the darkness. And that light, the very light of Christ, is within each of us. All we have to do is let it shine!

How? Though kind words of compassion and inclusion. We can let our Christ-light shine through generous actions, by promoting justice, and by propagating peace. In all of our relationships, near and far, with people and within creation herself, we can and must bring life by being a light for grace and truth. That, in the end, is the essence of being and the very foundation of salvation.

“From his fullness we have all […all have] received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being though Jesus Christ.”

Grace and Truth. Life and Light. Being itself.

Amen & Amen.


[i] Eugene Peterson. The Message Study Bible. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2012)  pg. 1635

[ii] Ibid Peterson pg. 1634

[iii] Common English Study Bible (CEB) Introduction to John Joel Green, Gen Ed. (copyright 2013) pg. 167-168

The Loving Path

John 15: 9-17

I like snowshoeing. It’s good exercise and it allows me to continue to be immersed in nature even in the winter. I’ve skipped the last couple of weeks of course, 30 below is little too cold for me. However, when the temperature rises there’s another obstacle to snowshoeing. Deep snow. The first time out after a big snow is difficult. I have no means to “groom” my trails, so I have to trudge up and down the hills, breaking the trail as I go. But here’s the thing. One the trail is broken, once the snow is packed down, snowshoeing becomes much easier and dare I say, more enjoyable.

There are also some obstacles to overcome as we approach our text for today. Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” Easy-peasy …right? This path is already packed down and ready to go. Love each other, got it! But do we …have it? I mean, it’s easy to love those who look like us, those whose lifestyle matches our own. But what about the person who makes our blood boil? What about the neighbor who complains all the time? What about cranky people who are unapologetically rude? What about the ones who attacked and defaced our capitol building on January 6th? How do we love them? What about those who are not only under the spell of the QAnon cult but are actively trying to recruit others? What about the Proud Boys, or the KKK, or any of these hate groups? Do we love them? I think this commandment is just got a little more difficult.

But, difficult doesn’t mean impossible if we approach this command with integrity, faith, and a sound theological understand of the context surrounding it. And that context begins with a Latin phrase: Pax Roma, (the Roman Peace)

Now, on the surface “peace” sounds great, right? Well, maybe not so much. You see, Rome believed that peace could only come through conquest by means of military force. The formula went like this: Religion + War + Victory = Peace. But how did they get there? Well, historically speaking, Rome actually began its rise to power as a republic. There was no king, no emperor, no Caesars. It was a representative government that allowed two representatives called “consults” from each conquered territory to speak for their constituents. Understand, however, that these two consults were limited to a 1 year term, thus, limiting their power.

But, as is often the case in national politics, differences arose along with power struggles, resulting in a civil war that lasted 20 years.  Which ended only when Octavian (later called Cesar Augustus) defeated Anthony and Cleopatra. Now the Roman citizens hailed Octavian as their “divine” liberator and savior, because he brought peace to the land. Hence the four-fold path to peace – religion + war + victory = peace. This was the birthing of a new theological and political era for Rome through the promotion of Cesar Augustus as the Divine Emperor. Divine in the sense that he was not just ordained by God but that he actually was a god, a god incarnate in human form here on earth. Sound familiar to anyone?[i]

So, to review, the Roman way to peace, Pax Roma, was to gain power by crushing those who would oppose them. Peace through fear. Peace through pushing down those who are already on the lowest rung of the ladder. This is the backdrop of our reading for today. This is the society that Jesus was born into and the foundation of the system that he opposed.

You see, Jesus had a different way of viewing peace. His path was a loving one. His path to peace was to gain power through non-violence, through lifting every person up, outsiders and those on that bottom rung alike. Jesus and his followers didn’t adhere to the pattern of the Pax Roma. His formula for peace went like this: Religion + Non-Violence + Justice = Peace.[ii] Which brings us back around to loving our enemy.

When we read this very important passage in John’s Gospel, I think we become laser-focused on the “love one another” part and we tend to ignore the rest of the thought: “…as I have love you”. What do I mean? Well, think about how God has loved us. God forgives us even when we cannot forgive ourselves. Even when we’re quote-unquote “unrepentant” God continues to offer us opportunity after opportunity to turn around, to move in a more compassionate, outward looking direction, and God is still around when we finally do. We see over and over again a Jesus who heals and restores wholeness to a diversity of people. He loved the poor, the sick, the outsider, and the marginalized alike. He invited those of other religions, and ethnicities, and races into fellowship with God.

And that’s the kind of love John is talking about. He isn’t saying we should condone the actions of the domestic terrorists on January 6th anymore than he’s advocating for the Pax Roma. You and I both know that affirming or ignoring bad behavior won’t fix the behavior. That’s not loving someone. But neither is demeaning someone, or writing someone off. Yes, we sometimes have to distance ourselves from a toxic relationships, but that doesn’t mean our task is to destroy that person. Our path to peace, inner peace or global peace, simply cannot be the Roman formula of religion + war + victory = peace. There’s finally no joy in crushing those who oppose us.

But my friends, there is joy, long, hard-earned joy, in Jesus’ way to peace. How do I know this? Well, personal experience for one, and common sense, and by understand the actual teachings and tradition of the Church, which come to us through the words of Jesus himself: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. Or, to use the sentiment of the Psalmist, Joy comes not in darkness, not in violence, but rather, “joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes when our religion demands non-violence and when it seeks justice for all people and all of creation. A justice that leads all of us to that deep, abiding and lasting kind of peace that Paul espoused.

My friends, the path before us is deep with snow. But let us not be deterred. My hope and my prayer for all of us is that we put on our snowshoes and start breaking that trail toward peace. Because you know what, if we do that hard work of creating a non-violent movement toward justice now, the path for those who will come after us will be packed down and their way will be easier.

Jesus said, “I give you these commandments, so that you can love each other”. May it be so. Amen & Amen.


[i] Borg, Marcus and John Dominic Crossan  Eclipsing Empire: Paul, Rome, and the Kingdom of God (Video series by Living the Questions www.livingthequestions.com)

[ii] Ibid Borg and Crossan.

Ash Wednesday

The Lenten Season is traditionally thought to be a time where we’re reminded of Jesus’ life and death. It’s a time of self-examination and repentance. In many traditions it’s a time when one thinks about what one can do without. This year, however, you’re being invited to begin your Lenten journey from a different place. It’s not that we’re going to toss tradition out the window, but rather enhance your experience of Lent by grounding it in a broader, more expansive understanding of faith.

Now, the best place to begin this enhanced journey is by reflecting on our unity with all that is, by remembering that each of us is part of an immense and continuous creation, a creation which entails the entire universe. Although we humans are a vital part of this creation, we are by no means the center. Yet we know that all too often we imagine and act as if we were the center—as if everything were here for us, for us to use for our own purposes, even to use up. And yet in our hearts we know that we live in and through a complex set of interconnected relationships, and that it’s our responsibility, as it has been the responsibility of each generation that preceded ours, to bequeath a healthy, fruitful, and beautiful world to all who shall follow.

Now, at this point you may be asking: “What does this understanding of connection and responsibility have to do with Lent?” Well, if we are open to allowing God to expose the places in our hearts that suffer from the illusion that we are separate and apart from creation and if we are willing to allow God to bring into the light those places where change is needed, then, I would contend, this is the real work of Lent. The real work of Lent is to renew our sense of connection, thus restoring our dignity and calling us back to ourselves, to a place where we acknowledge the invitation to choose life and our responsibility to act co-creatively with God.

And this journey of co-creativity begins today. Ash Wednesday is a day when we call all of our angers, hatred, and jealousies out from their dark corners. It’s a day when begin to acknowledge that these negative personal emotions affect more than just ourselves. You see, this is a season of healing. A healing that begins on the inside and expand outward. The ashes are not only a reminder of our need for transformation and healing, but they’re also a reminder of our connection with earth and how each of us can be instruments of healing to other and all of creation.

So, let the journey begin! Until next time, be safe, be well, be kind, and continue the good work of seeking justice and peace, healing and wholeness for all of creation. [i]


[i] The premise of this devotion and a portion of its content can be found in an article by Louise Rasmussen called The Star Within: An Alternative Ash Wednesday Ritual.  (www.progressivechristianity.org) 2014

Source of Strength

Mark 1: 29-39 (paraphrased)

After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James and John went home with Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.

That evening, at sunset, people brought to Jesus those who were sick with all kinds of diseases and disorders. The whole town gathered near the door to watch as he healed all of these people.

 Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer. Simon and those with him tracked him down. When they found him, they said, “Everyone’s looking for you!”

Jesus replied, “Let’s head in the other direction, to the nearby villages, so that I can preach there too. That’s why I’ve come.” He traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues, healing the sick, and bringing wholeness into the lives of many.

Today’s Message: Source of Strength

There are all kinds of patterns in this world. The first thing we probably think of fabric, right? There are an endless number of patterns from plaids to stripes to solids to ones with little bears and pine trees on them. But there are other types of patterns as well. Mathematical patterns for one. There are patterns in writing, especially in poetry; there are patterns in science; patterns of logic. How about the patterns of nature, ecosystems, the circular pattern of the ever-changing seasons, and the constant and on-going patterns of evolution. I can go on and on, but you get the point. Patterns exist everywhere.

But what about the Bible? Are there discernable patterns there?

Well, as I began to look theses four brief passages that we have before us today, a pattern began to emerge. First, Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, next he cures many illness for those gathered around him, he then takes a moment to rest, before moving on to widen the scope his mission. And here’s the really interesting part. This fourfold pattern seems to reflect the nature of his message. Time and again, we Jesus go first to the inner circle, second to the gathered crowds, he then finds a brief time to rest, and finally, he turns outward, taking his message to all people.

Now, as I say this, there are two lingering questions in my mind. First, why this outward-moving pattern? And second, why does Mark, a writer who never wastes a word on anything; why does he emphasize the need for Jesus to sneak away to find some “alone” time?

Well, let’s taking-on that latter question first because there’s a pretty simple answer here. Jesus was fully human. He, like all of us, needed to get away and recharge his batteries once in a while. And while we may have a variety of understandings about the divinity of Jesus (ranging from fully God, to possessing the energy of the divine, to having a unique relationship with God) it’s pretty safe to say that, historically, we know that a man existed, whose charisma and radical message drew large crowds. And it was because of this message and the size of his following that he became a threat to the powers that be, leading of course, to his execution by the Romans. We know all this from independent historians of that era.

Theologian E. Elisabeth Johnson adds, however, that the “…restoration of human wholeness is not for Mark a demonstration of Jesus’ personal power or his unique identity so much as it is a disclosure of God’s invasion of the creation. So, Jesus prays to the God who is at work in him.”[i]

In other words, there must be some type of separation or uniqueness between the divine part of Jesus, the incarnational aspect of God in Jesus (the “invasion of the creation” part) and Jesus’ humanity.  And, here, in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel we see this human side of Jesus being fully lived-out, even as he began to teach about that nature of God. I mean, so far, we’ve seen him baptized in a river, tested in the wilderness, and we’ve seen him proclaim that “the Reign of God has come near” in him.

And specifically in today’s text, we see Jesus heal a woman, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, in the privacy of her own home; we see him heal many people in a very public arena; and then, as I said before, after recharging his batteries, we see Jesus take his message to the masses. The threefold pattern emerges.

But let’s set the pattern aside for a moment and dig into this “in-between time” …this early-morning need for solitude that Mark highlights here. I think this is important for us to consider because this is where we’re invited enter the narrative. Jesus got up early, before dawn the text says, to find a quiet place so he could spend some time in prayer. For a little while anyway, in the cool, quiet of the pre-dawn, the pace of his life slowed down a bit. That’s our challenge as well. Our challenge is to find a corner of solitude, a sacred space,  where we too can find the time and the peace to be in the presence of God. A time of day when we might squirrel away in a soft chair and lose ourselves in prayer. We, like Jesus all those years ago, must seek those sacred moments when the pace of life slows down a bit. This is a vital aspect of our faith.

But, as we all know, a personal experience of the divine is just the beginning and not the sum total of our faith. So, turning back to Mark’s threefold pattern, we too, with recharged batteries, are called to share the love of God with our inner circle, with the gathered community, and to all the ends of the earth. This is what I call “the natural progression of faith.” The natural progression of faith begins with an “inner discovery of the divine” and then expands outward into an “on-going expression of our faith” through education, relationships, and service to others.

Do you see where Mark is taking us here? This threefold pattern is the heart of discipleship. This “from the inside/out” way of being faithful in the world is the blueprint for our commitment to love God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. I mean, beginning on the inside, we love ourselves by taking care of ourselves; physically, mentally, and spiritually. We’re continually in the process of becoming more than we already are; we should always in the process of attempting to develop healthy habits and relationships because in the end, our movement toward wholeness will lead others toward wholeness. Our progression toward become Light, will lead others into the Light. Others in our inner circle, (family, friends, our church family) and those beyond the walls of our community, out there, to all the ends of the earth.

One final thought today. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” This is such a profound statement as we attempt to apply the wisdom of Mark’s pattern to our own journey. Because what lies within us, all of us, all of humanity and all of the natural world, is what Whitehead called “the spark of the divine.” In other words, there is a bit of God within each of you; God’s goodness, God’s grace, God’s calling to turn your gaze outward by sharing the compassion and the forgiveness that was demonstrated in the life and teachings of Jesus. Yes, it’s a process. It’s a process that’s on-going. But it’s a process that’s necessary as we continue to work toward the day when justice is the norm and peace a constant.

This is my on-going hope and never-ending prayer. May it be so. Amen.


[i] Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

The Hill We Climb

Mark 1: 14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” Right away, they left their nets and followed him. After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

Today’s Message

This week, we, as a nation, began the long, difficult journey back to a place of decency, respect, and freedom. At the inauguration of President Biden we heard powerful speeches and beautiful music. But I think the words of poet Amanda Gorman were the most moving. With just 723 words, she echoed the hearts of so many and opened the door to the transformation, the unity, that we as a people so desperately need.  In her poem called The Hill We Climb, Gorman shared these words:
“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”[i]

She went on to share a verse from the Prophet Micah:
“Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it.”[ii]

Amazing. What a beautiful articulation of Justice and grasp of the challenge that justice seeks. I mean, Micah’s as of yet unfulfilled dream of equality for all people is so clearly imagined in this text. The Prophet envisioned that “…everyone [would] sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.” No one would make them afraid.

This is so important for us to understand and live-into as we face the injustices of our time. Fear-mongering has become the norm rather than the exception. Hate-filled rhetoric specifically and intentionally designed to divide us by making us afraid of the “other” whoever the “other” may be. And disinformation; disinformation that came from a place of darkness and fear about the pandemic, has lead to an unfathomable 400,000 deaths here in our nation since this pandemic began, with many more expected by the spring.

So, what do we do? Where do we turn? Or as the poet said, “Where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

Well, I think we can begin to find some answer these questions right here in the gospel text we have before us today. Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Change your hearts and lives! That’s big. That’s a key theme not only in Mark, but a thread we see running through all of the gospel accounts. Change your hearts and lives!

However, we must be careful to understand that Mark 1:15 is not a fixed theological formula, as if Jesus had only one sermon and delivered it in a variety of places. There are many other important themes and threads in the gospels. But, this core understanding of transformation allows us to both, enter the world of the gospel writers and to take a step back to take stock, and to open our eyes to the presence of injustice all around us. No matter what we’ve believed in the past, the truth is, as the poet so beautifully shared, “The norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.”

What did she mean by that? Well, consider our text for today. Two sets of brothers (Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John) were called from their task of fishing. And the key thing about this text is their response. They respond immediately and decisively. Their vocation as fisherman gives way to what John Calvin called their “higher calling;” a higher calling to “fish for people.”[iii] But that calling could not have been fulfilled if they refused to change. What if Peter said to Jesus, “I don’t know if I want to leave the comfort of what I’ve always done and who I’ve always been.” What if John said, “What if we fail?” What if Andrew said, “Prove it! Prove to me that you are who you say you are.” What if James had said, “That not the way we’ve always done it.”

Now, please don’t misunderstand me here. I know change can be difficult. However, if we’ve learned anything from the darkness of 2020, it’s that the status quo, the refusal to accept that which is right before our eyes, perpetuates the darkness and even deepens it.

But there is hope. There is light. If we are willing to open our eyes and our hearts, seeing and feeling the plight of the “other” than we will be climbing the hill of justice. “…If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it.”

May each of us dare it! May we all endeavor to be the voice of compassion, summon the courage to be the arm of transformation, indeed, may we the people, all the people, live-into the calling of our faith; a calling to be the very soul of justice.  

May it be so for you and for me

Amen & Amen.


[i] Amanda Gorman The Hill We Climb (Poem recited at the Inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, held on January 20, 2021)

[ii] Ibid Gorman

[iii] Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

Follow Me

Third Sunday After Epiphany

January 24, 2021

Study Guide for Mark 1:14-20

First Thoughts

Here we go on an new adventure!  Starting today, through Lent (and hopefully beyond) we will be using this format for Bible Study. These study guides coincide with the text and message of the previous Sunday and are intended to promote a further and more in-depth study of the passage.  The Epiphany Season will feature Mark’s Gospel as this the B year of the RCL. But we will move in a slightly different direction during Lent. I will be preaching (and we will be studying) a sermon series called The Enduring Empire: A Contextual Study of the Gospel According to John. This is a series and I developed that focuses on the teachings of Jesus in light of the Roman occupation and persecution that John’s community was enduring. I will be sending all of you the study guides in advance and they will be posted on this blog.

General Background

What do you already know about the Gospel According to Mark as compared to the other three accounts? What’s the same? What’s different?

Mark 1:14-15

Theme

Jesus establishes his authority about who he is and what he’s up to.

Theological Perspective

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel follows his baptism and temptation. No birth narrative. No stories about his childhood. Mark gets right down to the nitty-gritty. The text tells us that Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (CEB)  

This passage is a summary statement that introduces themes present throughout Mark’s Gospel. These themes form the core of what Jesus’ disciples and, later, the early Christian church preached and taught. (We will encounter many of these themes throughout the coming year as we move through the Gospel of Mark)

However, Mark 1:15 is not a fixed theological formula, as if Jesus had only one sermon and delivered it in a variety of places. Instead, the themes here open into the way Jesus explained and expounded upon them throughout his ministry, in different places and contexts. They open into what the church developed into it’s primary theological understandings. In other words, the kingdom or reign of God came in the person of Jesus with the primary goal of changing human “hearts and lives.”

Food for Thought

How might “changing hearts and lives” still be relevantin the world today? …in our nation or community? The Church?

Mark 1:16-20

Theme: Calling of the first disciples.

Contextual & Theological Perspective

The power and authority of Jesus’ words are experienced in the call of his first disciples. Two sets of brothers (Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John) are called from their task of fishing. They respond immediately and decisively. Their vocation as fisherman gives way to what John Calvin called their “higher calling” to “fish for people.” Leaving jobs and families shows us that they were utterly convinced by Jesus about who he was and the nature of his mission.

Application

How might this immediate and decisive decisionby the first four still be relevant to us in our context?

Have you ever considered what your life’s calling might have been? What is still is? What it may yet be? How might “changing hearts and lives” fit into your sense of call?

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The primary source of information for this study guide: Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elisabeth Johnson eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2014

The Work of Christmas

Let me begin today with a poem by the wonder philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman, as he reminds of the true meaning of Christmas in his poem, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
And to make music in the heart.[i]

But how do Thurman’s words connect with The Word or the Logos from today’s Christmas reading? Well, the best way to understand this connection is to realize that the Bible is not just one book. It’s a collection of many books and ideas and worldviews, gathered across centuries by hundreds of people, and compiled into a library if you will, where “new ideas sit side by side with old ideas”[ii].  The theology of the Bible is vast, expansive, and complex. I can’t over-state this point! The books of the Bible and often parts within books of the Bible, were independently written.

But that doesn’t mean the books are disconnected. The Bible, in my view, has an overarching story of progress. Theologian Rob Bell says, “The stories in the Bible – and the Bible itself – have an arc, a trajectory, a movement and momentum like all great stories have”[iii] And I would add, like all great stories the Bible has a central theme. And that theme is “love of God and neighbor.” This is the reoccurring premise we see over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures and from the mouth of Jesus in his words and teachings. You see, Jesus was, and continues to be, the greatest revelation of who God is, and who we’re supposed to be as humans. That’s the point of the incarnation, of Christmas, of our very existence. So, it’s important to understand that the Bible is finally not a field guide about how to get to heaven. Rather, it’s about, in the words of John, “light and life.” Jesus came to be that light that guides us into an abundant life. And not just for ourselves, but beyond ourselves.  

I think we sometimes forget the second part. We’re called to experience life beyond our selves, our own comfort, our own pleasure, and our own concerns. And we are challenged to experience God beyond our group of peers, reaching out to and interacting with people who may not look, or speak, or act like us with open minds and hearts. This is why the Bible, and subsequently, our shared journey of faith is on-going. This is why we in the United Church of Christ say, “God is Still Speaking.” The Bible should never be the end of the conversation, always the beginning. The Word, the Logos, wasn’t just a theological moment back then, but the on-going, progressive, incarnate work of Christmas in the here and now. This is the essence of the light and life that Jesus represented.

So, when Howard Thurman says the work of Christmas includes things like finding the lost and broken and restoring in them a sense of inclusion and wholeness, he’s really saying, be the light and life to others. When Thurman says the work of Christmas includes feeding the hungry, bringing release and liberation to those in bondage, the marginalized, the oppressed, by rebuilding nations and bringing peace among people, he’s really saying, be all that you’ve experienced from God by being light and life to others.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. I have a pond on my property. Now, I use the term “pond” loosely here because it’s really a low area where excess water collects. So, most of the time it’s stagnant, motionless. And yes, you can make the argument that there is life there, I mean, algae and mosquitos love it. And please don’t misunderstand me, I do value my little stagnant pond for what it is, but when I go to the Namekagon River it’s a whole different experience. The river is always moving, changing, evolving, and bringing forth life in new and wonderful ways.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? The life we’re call to as people of faith is dynamic, passionate; we’re called to be the church beyond ourselves. Live the river, always moving, changing, evolving, and bringing forth life in new and wonderful ways.

Let me put a bow on all of this by offering you a quote from William Faulkner. He once wrote, “Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you will do this you will change the earth.” My friends, the work of Christmas has begun. Let us go forth and “change the earth” offering light and life to all, through acts of simple kindness, and by doing the hard work of restoring justice and propagating peace.  

In the name of the Incarnate One, the Logos, the Word. Amen, and the people of God said, Amen!


[i] Howard Thurman The Work of Christmas (www.progressivechristanity.org) 2014

[ii] Rob Bell What Is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything (Harper One, 2007) p.123

[iii] Ibid Bell p.116 He also stated, “The Bible is a library of books reflecting how human beings have understood the divine. People at that time believed the gods were with them when they went to war and killed everyone in the village. What you’re reading is someone’s perspective that reflects the time and the place they lived in. It’s not God’s perspective— it’s theirs. And when they say it’s God’s perspective, what they’re telling you is their perspective on God’s perspective. Don’t confuse the two.”

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud

 

The Annunciation

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of David his father.  He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”

The Magnificat. 

Then Mary said, “In the depths of who I am, I rejoice, in God my savior. God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is God’s name. God shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honor God. God has shown strength with a mighty arm. God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. God has come to the aid of Israel, remembering mercy, and the promised made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Gold, Circumstance, and Mud

The Magi, the shepherds, the donkey, of course, Joseph, and even the inn keeper are all important to the Christmas story. But, outside of Jesus himself, I think Mary takes center stage. And in this fourth Sunday of Advent, the day when we celebrate the love of God come down to earth, I think it’s no accident that Mary is the star.

Why? Well, because when she hears the call of God, she responds. She’s a  model of faith, servanthood, discipleship, and hospitality. I mean, in the Annunciation, the first part of our reading, Mary hears an incredible message. ! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. And of course, Mary asks, as any of us would: “How could this possibly be true?” The response, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Now, the point of this story isn’t whether or not it’s literal or symbolic, in other words, let’s not be bogged down in the virgin birth debate or whether or not stars stop over particular buildings. I don’t think that the message we need to focus on today. Instead, we’re invited to consider who God calls rather than the circumstances surrounding that call. What do I mean by that?  Well, we need begin by to remembering that Mary was call an ordinary young woman. She wasn’t a princess or a queen, she wasn’t a great warrior or scholar, Mary was an ordinary teenage girl who, within the boundries of her ordinary daily life, was invited to see and do something, extraordinary.

But what might doing extraordinary within the ordinary look like in our world? Well, there’s an old story about a man who was home with the children one afternoon while his wife went out Christmas shopping.  He was reclining on the couch, half sleeping, half watching a football game, when the kids came into the room. “Dad, we have a play to put on?  Do you want to see it?” Now, he really didn’t want to, but he knew he needed to, so he sat up, came out of his slumber, and became a one-man audience. His four children, four, six, eight, ten years old, were the actors:  Mary, Joseph, an angel and a wise man.  Joseph came in with a mop handle.  Mary came in with a pillow under her pajamas; another child was an angel, flapping her arms as wings. Finally the last child, the eight year old, came out, with all of the jewelry on that she could find in the house, her arms filled with three presents.  “I am all three wise men,” she said.  “I bring three precious gifts:  gold, circumstance, and mud.”[i]

Now, here’s the really amazing part of this story. The father didn’t laugh, as you might expect he would, and he didn’t correct his wise young daughter.  Instead, the father began to reflect on the extraordinary meaning behind those mis-understood words and how they somehow got to the heart of the Christmas story. I mean, God loves us for who we are: our gold. God loves us no matter where we find ourselves on the journey: our circumstances. And finally, God loves us in our brokenness, transgressions and mistakes and stubbornness and all: our mud.

The Christmas story reminds us God chose an ordinary human being–Mary—someone like us, to be the vessel through which God would become a little more accessible to humanity.  What is impossible for us is possible with God.  God can take our gold, our circumstance, our mud, and do something awesome with it. So this, in a nutshell, is the Annunciation. God’s calling to humanity. [ii]  

But remember, we have two parts to today’s lesson. There’s also the Magnificat!  Humanities’ response. In the text Mary says, ” … God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant.”  In other words, Mary is saying, “I am an ordinary person, I’m not perfect, and yet, God has chosen me for this.” 

My friends, the good news of the gospel is that when God begins to look for us, God is not looking for perfection. God chooses ordinary people like you and me, God loves the unlovable, and God welcomes everyone, no matter what country we come from, no matter what color our skin, no matter how we choose to worship, or how we voted, or who we love.

My friends, when all is said and done, the most important thing we can take-away from Mary’s story is that God is love incarnate. I always say at the end of my service, “God Loves You” and that’s true. But it goes even deeper than that, God is love itself. God is the embodiment of love. God is love come down to earth, born in a manger, embracing the most vulnerable with the security of love, healing the most broken with the wholeness of love; and calling each of us to be bearers of love, proclaiming and sharing it to all the ends of the globe.

Let me conclude my remarks today with a blessing. May each of you be surrounded and infused with the love of God. And may that love move us to overcome the challenges of this pandemic, may that love call to us to stand against the racial injustice that still favors the privileged and infests our systems of government, may that love challenge all of us to come together, to unify, even when we disagree, to become one people under God. And, my friends, if we hear and respond to love’s call, we can do these things, we can find unity within our diversity, we can bring justice to our neighbor and peace to our shores, and with God’s love we can endure the struggles of our times; and it’s then, then that we will truly be, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. My friends, nothing is impossible with God, …nothing.  Amen & amen.


[i] James Moore Won’t You Let Him In? (found in “An Advent Study for Adult”, pg.30)

[ii] Bishop Kenneth Carter Call and Response (www.Day1.org) 2011