“Who Is Jesus?” Ash Wednesday 2018 Mark 8:27-30

O.K, it looks like Lutherans have the last verse down pat.   We’re really good at not saying anything to anyone about Jesus!

We hear the usual passage from Matthew’s Gospel used for this night about not making a show of one’s religion, giving our gifts in secret, not making a spectacle of prayer and we find ourselves feeling really comfortable with that.

The smudge on the forehead is already enough of a “showy” thing for us, a bit of a stretch.  If someone asks about it, we usually mutter that “it’s a church thing” and leave it at that.

We have become so skilled at practicing our piety in private that when someone does ask us about Jesus, we can feel a little tongue tied.

What should I say to the question, “Who is Jesus?”

Do I go for a history lesson?  Do I put Jesus in the context of the bible and the geo-political realities of his day and talk about what he taught and what he said and how it related to the people of his own day and age?

If I do that, I begin to wonder if Jesus has anything to say to me, in the here and now?

Do I speak of Jesus as being a prophet in his own time like Elijah.  He was doing battle with the opposing forces of this world, all those “ba’als” out there, the false gods.

Do I then make a tie into the “ba’al’s” of our own day–  the false gods of greed, avarice, hatred, the demon of possessions and the apathy of those too long invested in maintaining institutions, holding to power, or keeping the status quo?

If I do that, do I make of Jesus then just a social worker?   Someone who had concern for the poor, the downtrodden and rejected of his time and all the injustices and who then inspires me to have the same concerns in my time?

Do I speak of Jesus as a new Moses as Matthew did, portraying him as giving instructions to his followers, a new commandment to pattern your life after, leading them through the wilderness of Roman occupation toward a promised realm where God is a just leader and guide?

Does Jesus teach us still, and if so, what would be the take away in our world?   Is it the same as Matthew’s words to a people living under Empire?   Or have we become complicit with the very Empire against whom Jesus spoke?

Who is Jesus to me?  To you?

This is the persistent question with which the ash upon forehead makes us wrestle.

It’s not as easy to answer as we might at first think because answering the question itself often reveals much more about ourselves than it does about the Jesus we profess.

Who I say that Jesus is will involve much more than my words, or my thoughts, or my actions.

It will also reveal my intentions, my inner most thoughts, my view of the world and my place within it.   As one who has been claimed by God in the waters of Baptism and given the gift of everlasting life, the forgiveness of sins, and salvation…. does my life attest to that when it is observed by others?

Do I “look” like one who believes in and belongs to Jesus?

We feel the weight of what it means to belong to Jesus when we are reminded of the disciplines of Lent and are marked visibly with the Ash.

To follow Jesus is to be engaged in the things that Jesus did, and who was he?  What did he do?

Well Jesus fasted, but as it turns out he also feasted.  He was quite content to show up at weddings and at Pharisee’s houses and to enjoy a good foot massage as much as time away in a lonely place.

Jesus lived a life of self-examination, but he also could be boisterous, known to celebrate and not care what others thought.   He plucked grain on the sabbath, thumbed his nose at religious practices of washing and observing proper protocol.

He prayed aloud, and he prayed in private, and scolded those who could not keep watch with him even one hour, but had lots of compassion on those who could not even put together a single coherent thought and who instead lived like a wild person among the tombs, or reached out to grab the hem of his garment looking for healing.

Jesus sacrificed personally, but also didn’t mind extravagance shown to him by others.  He accepted the hospitality of Mary and Martha.  He was known to do a little shore lunch from time to time when the mood struck him, and to produce prodigious amounts of wine from water.

Jesus certainly did works of love, but he also instructed those who followed him to do such things as well.  “You feed them.”

He had compassion on people, but was also known to complain about others.  After healing the 10 lepers he wondered what happened to the nine who didn’t say “thank you.”  He always had time for the Pharisee’s questions, but warned against their “leaven” and criticized their tithing.   He cleared the money changers out of the temple with a cord and turned over tables, but was also known to gather children on his lap and speak tenderly to the grieving.

Jesus was and is (in other words) a complex character.

If you are going to try to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” you’re going to discover that the answer is a far more complex one than with which we are comfortable.

We’d like it simple.

We’d like it consistent.

We’d like Jesus to be one whom we can categorize and characterize and finally “pin down” definitively, because that would give us a standard by which we could measure our own actions and proclaim, “This is who Jesus is, and I am completely consistent with all his expectations.”

But it appears that God is on to us in that department.

God knows that if we could pin God’s Son down to a few consistent behaviors or expectations, we’d find a way to weasel out of them, or  say “well, close enough” and leave it at that.

And so, God makes of God’s own Son, (makes of Jesus,) this complex character with whom we have to continue to wrestle and dance our whole life long.

It’s not that we can’t tell you who Jesus is, it’s that Jesus keeps widening the circles on us, always staying one step ahead of us, and urging us on just a little bit further.

“Come just a little further into my love.”  Jesus seems to say.

“Come just a little further into my compassion, for it is the compassion of God.”

“Take just one more step into my realm, God’s Kingdom or sphere of influence here, one step further into God’s limitless love, one step further into God’s ability to forgive on display in my actions, just a bit further….”

Who is Jesus?  To you?   To me?   He is the one just outside our reach who keeps extending his hand to us.

We know, we trust, he’ll catch us if we fall.

But we also know he won’t stop making us stretch.

And so, this night there will be one more reach, a hand extended with ash upon the fingertip to mark you on the spot where the oil anointed you and you were first claimed by God in baptism.

Who is Jesus?   He’s the one who never stops reaching, and marking, and reminding us who we are.  Dust, but God’s own dust and beloved.

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“A Changed Moment” Mark 9:2-9

There is a reason why preachers dread Transfiguration Sunday.  This is just plain a weird story.

We’re not really sure what to do with a “glow in the dark” Jesus.

We’re not sure what to make of the disciples who witness it, whether they are buffoons, or stammering for what to say, or what.

There are way too many details in the story to try to loop together.   Old Testament prophecies, Moses and Elijah, the voice of God booming to declare Jesus the “beloved son” and the direction to “listen to him.”

It’s a weird story with way too many moving parts to try to dissect.    Attempts at making sense of the event ultimately fail.   Even those who witness it are told to not talk about it until later.

How then does one preach the transfiguration?

I’m taking a little different tact this time around.  I’m going to show you a little film clip (I hope) to give you some insight.

Just to set this clip up, it is a singer/actor by the name of Keala Settle, who will play the Bearded Lady in the recent movie “The Greatest Showman.”   While the movie uses the person of P.T. Barnum and his circus as a kind of bio-pic, it is really about people coming to terms with who they are.   The director does a pretty good job of setting up the experience, but what I want you to watch for in the clip is what I’m going to call “the transfiguration moment.”   When did you see her transfigured before your very eyes.

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=FLNqcz3-WZMqU_MTB2O4zBLA

Yes, it’s Hollywood.

Yes, these are professional actors who know how to inhabit a character and how to portray emotion, feeling, and power to us, but I want to argue that there is something happening in that moment that simply transfigures the person, and allows us to see something that we had no idea was there or even possible before.

Did anything you saw of her in the little clip at the beginning prepare you for what she became during the song?

There is a “moment” that happens, when the curtain is pulled back and it’s not just a performance, but there is something of her own self, her own experience being channeled.  A moment when we behold something never before seen, and it is quite inexplicable, leaves us breathless.

I want to argue that in the Transfiguration story that is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, the Disciples get a glimpse of their own future, a moment when because of what they seen in Jesus, they can begin to imagine their own transformation, transfiguration from followers into those who will proclaim the Kingdom because they have listened to Jesus.

We know this moment, the moment that changes us.

We can barely put it into words, but we know it.

I think we see this moment all the time, all around us, but we just don’t think about it until much later.

It is the moment when something that is “of God” is revealed to us.

It is a moment that we may not completely understand at the time, but that we can point back to as the moment when things were transformed and we too, were transfigured in a sense.

We know this moment.  We have felt it, seen it.

Here’s a moment like that.   The moment when a Father walks his daughter down the aisle.  I love this picture, and I hope you don’t mind me lifting it to use Bob and Clare, but take a look at it and tell me which one you think is transfigured here?

Is it the bride because she’s certainly radiant and focused on the moment, when daddy walks her to the waiting arms of her beloved.

Or is it the father?   Because the look on his face is one of confidence and pride.  He’s losing his little girl but he’s gaining sense of pride in how she has grown to become her own woman.

We know this moment.  It’s the moment when everything changes and when lives and relationships are transformed, and God is in this moment.

We know this moment.   We weren’t on the National Mall to hear Dr. King deliver the “I Have A Dream” speech but you cannot look at this photograph without sensing the gravity of the moment and hearing his words ring in your ears.

It’s unlike any other moment really, except that we have had our own experiences of having to speak up, or to challenge an assumption, or to live into a dream proclaimed.

Maybe it was some other rousing public speaker.

Maybe is was confronting the bias or racism of a co-worker or family member.

Maybe it was in your own family as you talked about what you believe, or revealed what you know to be true for you.  Your orientation, your political persuasion, your sense of call or direction for life.

Maybe it was just looking longingly at the photo are realizing how much it cost Dr. King and so many others to advance an idea, and to live into the promises of our founding documents, that all men truly are created equal…

We know this moment.  It is the moment when truth is spoken to power, when eloquent words stir the soul, and in that moment, God is present.  God is in the moment.

We know this moment.   If you have been a parent, if you have held the child in your arms and felt the weight of responsibility and the power of love at creating life, and been awed at both its fragility and its resilience, you have known this moment.

It is a transfiguring moment.

It changes how you see your own life, how you see the one you love, how you see the future and what your hopes and dreams are built around and focused on from this moment on.

You will feel the pain of wondering what the future holds.

You will fear for the events of this world, and what you will leave, and what kind of world this helpless little one will grow up in and inherit.

You cannot hold a baby and not be filled with joy, and fear, and wonder.

It is a transfiguring moment.

We know this moment.

And what I want to argue today is that because we know these moments and a myriad of other moments like them, we also know this moment of Transfiguration of Jesus.

We know what it is to stand in the position of Peter, James and John. and not know exactly what to make of the moment, except to recognize that God is present and near, and that whatever just happened here is something that we will have to make sense of as we reflect on it later, but it has changed our life.

Right now, the important thing is the moment.

Right now, it is standing here with my daughter, my son, knowing that God is here, and will be with her long after I can no longer walk down this aisle, or he or she is walking her own child down it.

Right now, it is hearing words that I recognize to be true echoing in my mind, spurring me to speak when the moment is needed.   The assurance that God will be present and will give me the words as needed.

Right now, it is cradling the child and knowing that no matter what else I might have done or messed up, God is the keeper of life and present in a new generation who will sing God’s praise.

Transfiguration is about this moment, where we behold something that will only made sense to much, much later.  It is the moment when you knew with absolute clarity that the God who had acted in Moses and Elijah, was active still.  Is here with you, booming with a loud voice to listen to Jesus and to remember this moment.

Harking back to this moment was the power that gave voice to Peter on Pentecost, that empowered James and John to work in Jerusalem in the days after Jesus’ ascension.

Remembering the words spoken by Jesus, and this moment of knowing that God was present, having experienced, experienced something on the mountaintop – that was what transfigured frightened disciples who ran from the Garden into Apostles and Teachers who proclaimed Jesus to the ends of the earth.

We know this moment.

We will know it again, and again, and again, as God’s word continues to transfigure us in this world, change us into the disciples we are meant to be.

“Did You Get the Message?” Mark 1:29-39

“Did you get the message?”

That’s a simple phrase with oh so many possible! Meanings!   It can have a simple straightforward meaning.   The “message” being a conveyance of information.  Maybe a phone call, a direction, a message of time, place, direction or detail left in a note taped to a door or left on a counter.

And then there are the other “messages” that are sent and received.

The cold shoulder when you meet.

The invitation not extended.

Being left out of an e-mail exchange or loop of calls or information with other people and then the excuse coming, “oh, we simply forgot to include you” – which ends up being a message itself of how important you are to the process, or to the people, or whether you are seen as an asset to the process or a liability.

“Did you get the message?”

We also communicate with more than just words and notes.

We communicate with our attitudes, our expectations, and our omissions.  Messages are sent by the kind of body posture we assume as we speak or listen, by the subtle changes in appearance that we make, whether we “dress up” for someone or “dress down”, primp our hair or do any of those small personal gestures.

We communicate with shifts in tone during our conversations, with the faces we make, the expressions we use, the roll of an eye, the dismissive wave of a hand.

“Did you get the message?”

You weren’t really welcome.

Or, “Boy, were they relieved to see you walk in!”

In the Gospel for today we are forced to do a little back-tracking in Mark’s Gospel.   After the events of Simon’s house, Jesus is praying by himself and the disciples come to find him.  They inform him that everyone is looking for him, and his response to that is  ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 

His response is a bit of a head scratcher at first, because you have to go all the way back to the arrest of John to be reminded of what the message was that he came out to proclaim.   “The Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

          That message was not explicitly spoken in words in the events of Simon’s house.

At Simon’s house they show up at a bad time for getting dinner.   Simon’s mother-in-law is ill, and so cannot do the expected and anticipated work of providing Hospitality.

Jesus’ response to that information is not to say, “oh, well, sorry, let’s move on and not be a bother.”

No, instead he takes her by the hand and lifts her up.   She is healed so that she can serve them.  She is healed so that she can fulfill what would have been the cultural expectation of hospitality.

She is healed, in other words, so that she can do what it is her desire to do.   We could go so far as to say that she is empowered by Jesus to do what she was called to do.

The message (so far as we can tell) of the Kingdom of God having come near is not spoken of in words in the events of the whole city.  We can assume that the gathering at the doorway to receive healing from various diseases and to have their demons cast out is because of Jesus’ notoriety, what he has done in the Synagogue and to Simon’s mother-in-law, but there is no mention of what Jesus speaks at all. We are only told that he would not let the demons have their say because they “knew him.”

And yet, we could say that the message of the Kingdom of God coming near had been received.

The whole town wouldn’t be at the doorway if the word about Jesus and what he could do had not gotten out.   The Kingdom of God had indeed come near was visible in the serving Simon’s mother-in-law was doing, and in the people who were leaving the house cured, in right mind again and in peace of spirit.

We don’t know what words were spoken by Jesus (if any), but the message was clear.   God was present.  A new reality was available to a people who had previously had to simply put up with what ailed them.

Which brings me back to that little scene there with the disciples coming to find him, and telling him that everyone is looking for him.

It’s always dangerous to try to get into the mind of Jesus, to wonder what he is thinking, what his prayers may have been.  But one can’t help but think that maybe Jesus was thinking,

“They have gotten the message here.”

If everyone is looking for him, they have gotten the message that God’s Kingdom has come near and so it’s time to take that message on to where it is intended to go, to the neighboring cities, to the rest of the world.

The message doesn’t need words always.

Often the message is received or communicated by actions, gestures, and activity.

“Let us go on, for that is what I came out to do….”

We might be so bold also as to observe that when the Kingdom of God comes near, what we see are people engaged in what they came out to do in the first place.   Not simply Jesus, but those who have received a glimpse of the Kingdom.

Simon’s mother-in-law providing hospitality.

Those who had been troubled in spirit and infirm of body going back to work, providing for family, connecting with loved ones, able to do at last what they set out to do.   Able to do what God had gifted them to do.  Able to be of service again, and to live freed from that which had laid them low.

The message that the Kingdom of God has come near does not always need words.  Sometimes what it needs most is actions, and people empowered at last to do what they had been called to do in the first place.

It is at this point that the gospel leaps through the centuries to come home to us.

What if that is truly the case?

What if proclaiming that the “Kingdom of God has come near” is not so much a matter of words as it is actions, and not fancy or spectacular actions, not having the biggest or the best or the most active ministry or program, but in the mundane actions of daily life where we find ourselves simply doing what we were called and empowered to do in the first place.

What if proclaiming that the “Kingdom of God has come near” is as simple as just getting along with your mother-in-law?

What if proclaiming that the “Kingdom of God has come near” is as mundane as making a try of sandwiches for your guests?

Surely we have felt like that as we’ve done it for a funeral, or provided lunch for hungry workers or those who have no means to cook themselves?    Maybe we’ve even sensed it in the hospitality extended to family or friends.  This is what I was meant to do!  This is how I serve!

What if proclaiming that the “Kingdom of God has come near” is as simple as how you treat those who show up on your doorstep, not turning them away but attending to their hurts and casting out the demons of distrust and suspicion?

This is what I was meant to do!   Welcome you here!

What if this is the great revelation made by Jesus in his time of prayer after that long day at Simon’s house.   What Jesus needs to do to bring near the Kingdom of God has less to do with the words that are spoken than it does with the actions that are taken, and prompted in others?

“Everyone is looking for you.”  The disciples say.

And it is as if Jesus nods and thinks “Message conveyed….let’s move on…”

And by extension, what if that is also the case for us?

We are intimidated about proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God coming near.   We get all tongue tied, or we want to run the other way when the “E” word (Evangelism) is used.

“Oh, I can’t do that, I don’t want to be preachy!”

But this Gospel seems to be telling us is that Jesus has already shown us that our best efforts at proclaiming the good news of God coming near may have less to do with what we say and more to do with what we do.   It has everything to do with living into what we’ve already or always been called to do in the first place.

Could you get into Evangelism if what it meant for you to do it was be hospitable, doing what you would have done anyway?

Could you imagine that what Jesus does is heal you for the sake of you getting back into the fray of life, doing the things for which you are already called, gifted, and talented, and doing them well, and then passing that spirit forward to those around you?

Is there a slight smile of satisfaction on the face of Jesus whenever he sees a tray of sandwiches passed around, or a worried father’s burdens lifted enough to go home to hug his spouse and child, or a youth who was troubled in spirit getting along with his or her parent?

“Message conveyed, let’s move on….”

Perhaps we make way too much of the miraculous and looking for it.

Maybe we make this “Kingdom of God” too mysterious, when Jesus seems to prefer to make it more mundane, more “everyday” and “everyone.”

The Kingdom of God has come near wherever people are liberated to do what they are already called and gifted to do.

The Kingdom of God comes near whenever we work to help people live, and whenever we free them from the things that get in the way of their simply living and caring for others.

This is the discovery in the Gospel today.  God is present in the healing and the casting out, and in the lives that resume once healing takes place.

Did you get the message?

“What Have You To Do With Us, Jesus?” Mark 1:21-28

It was on a “bit of fun” posting in a group of seminary classmates that I got my nugget of insight for this Gospel lesson today.   The set-up was to think back about professors and throw up some comments that we remember from our professors.

It was great fun.

Remembering how a Preaching Professor, (Sheldon Tostengard) used to go to the window and make gagging and vomiting sounds when a student had a real stinker of a sermon before turning to analyze and involve everyone in helping student improving it.

The New Testament Professor who would throw confetti from the balcony when the worship planners at Seminary chapel planned a formal procession.  “If you’re gonna have a parade, just as well go all out….”

But for this sermon it was the memory of a classmate talking about a visiting professor from Madagascar, and his response to an incredulous student that sparked my thoughts.

Christianity arrived in Madagascar as a result of the work of Norwegian pietist missionaries in the 1860’s.   The conditions they found on the island were of extreme poverty, lack of health and mental health care, and a religion that was intensely tribal and animistic.   There were “spirits” everywhere, and in everything.

This was fertile ground for the Gospel message of Jesus as it had been proclaimed in the early church, with missionaries paying close attention to the way that healing and the casting out of the demons that afflicted the indigenous people went hand in hand.  You could not simply teach them better hygiene or administer first aid, you had to also “drive out” the afflicting spirit that was the cause of the malady.

As the professor talked about the important role in that faith community to this day of doing exorcism and spiritual cleansing, a student asked, “You don’t really believe in demons, do you?”

The professor turned from the blackboard and looked the student in the eye and responded:   “The demons could care less if you doubt their existence…as if your doubt would determine their reality.”  — and then turned to continue with his lecture.

I have pondered that comment over and over as I read this story of Jesus in the Synagogue for today.

We quite often get sidetracked in Mark’s gospel debating the reality of demons or “unclean spirits” as this translation calls them.   We posit our own questions as to whether folks had some form of mental illness, or suffered from epilepsy, or bi-polar conditions. We look at the Gospel story and try to diagnose the presenting symptoms with modern eyes and terminology.

All attempts to do that only end up becoming a distraction to the central point of the story.

Jesus does not question the reality of the demonic.

Instead Jesus addresses it when it presents itself and deals with it, in short order.   “Be silent, come out…”

Mark readily points out that the demon-possessed seem perfectly happy to be sitting there in the synagogue, engaging in worship, singing the psalms and hearing the scripture read. They don’t even really mind Jesus being around at first. They are content and quiet right up to the point where Jesus starts to “teach with authority.”

Then it is that the objection is raised.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus?  Have you come here to destroy us?  We know who you are, the Holy one of God!”

The demons could care less if you doubt their existence.   In fact, it serves them quite well to go unnoticed and anonymous in your midst.

Your doubt of their existence does not determine their reality.

What reveals the demonic in your midst is the teaching of Jesus, which is a teaching with authority.

Whenever Jesus begins to speak of what one must do for the sake of the coming Kingdom of God, that is when the demonic tends to raise its objections.

It is when Jesus begins to lay out what God’s intention for this world is that the demon screams and back questions.

And the question?   “What do you have to do with us, Jesus?”  It is a question of continued existence!   Whether what the demonic is used to doing can continue, or whether Jesus will destroy it.

Would you like to test that?  Need a bit of proof?

Pick any subject upon which Jesus’ teaching is clear and authoritative, and then apply it to our own current situation, and see if you begin to hear the demons protest!

We know, (for instance) that Jesus was absolutely clear about the matter of violence.  Do not return violence for violence.   You have heard it said, and eye for and eye and the tooth for a tooth, but I say love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.   Put away that sword, those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.

You can search the Gospels all you want, but you will not find a single passage where Jesus advocates violent resistance or condones the use of force in any way.  The closest he gets is the cleansing of the temple where “zeal for God’s house” gets the better of him, but threat of violence, driving with a whip fashioned of cord, is not punching.

So then, the teaching is clear.   No one who follows Jesus should resort to or advocate for violence.   Apply the teachings of Jesus to something like gun ownership for personal protection and it simply doesn’t fit.   “Put away that handgun, those who live by the handgun, die by the handgun.”

Can you hear the demons screaming?

Here come the objections, the need to protect ourselves, our constitutional rights, the way this world works, the “you’re naïve to think criminals won’t get guns” and on an on.

The teaching of Jesus is clear.  No greater love than to lay down your own life….

Those who lose their lives for my sake will gain their life…

Anyone who would come after me must take up their cross… be prepared to die.

But the demon of personal preservation and protection is strong, and loud, and does not want to give up their claim on this world!

“What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”

Or let’s take the area of economics.

Consider the lilies of the field…

If you have two shirts, give one away.

Soldiers, do not take more than you are paid, do not extort the people.

Tax collectors, leave your positions and pay back what you have taken.

Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the peacemakers.

Woe to you who are rich!  Woe to you who have your reward now!

Jesus teaching on economics is clear, in the Kingdom of God all are to have enough, and in the Kingdom of God the concentration of wealth into the hands of a few is leveled and re-distributed.

How we get there is the problem.

The example set by Jesus calls for voluntary redistribution, and the church of Acts took up that very project, selling their possessions, having all things in common so that no one lacked anything.

Can you hear the demons screaming?

“Socialism!”

“That’s not how things work, you need to earn your way!”

“Those people won’t appreciate things just given to them!”

“Hey, I’ve worked hard for what I got, you expect me to lower my standard of living?”

All of those are simply variations of “What do you have to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy everything I have built up for myself?”

Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I’m not saying that if you don’t follow Jesus’ clear teaching you are a demon or somehow demon possessed.

What I am saying is that whenever Jesus speaks with authority, we’re going to begin to see where our own demons are, and we will have to struggle with them.

This is what that professor from Madagascar was pointing out.

The demons could care less if you doubt their existence.   It’s not your belief or doubt that determines their reality.

What determines their reality is how you react to the coming Kingdom of God.

That is what threatens them.

The demon of poverty cannot exist where people share their bread.

The demon of wealth cannot exist where people see to the welfare of their neighbor.

The unclean spirit of pride and arrogance cannot take root where the spirit of humility and charity is present.

What threatens the demon that grips you is the clear teaching of Jesus which is its end, because it calls those who follow to behave in ways that will not allow the demon to exist or persist.

When you hear the demon scream, when you are aware of its existence, then it is that you need to hear the clear teaching of Jesus to silence it.

This is the promise in the Gospel lesson today.   When you start to listen to the teaching of Jesus, you’re going to hear the demons scream their objections!

You’re going to hear them in your midst.

You’re likely going to hear their protests coming from your own lips and throat from time to time.

“What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?   Have you come to destroy?”

Destroy my old way of thinking.

Destroy my pride?

Destroy my greed?

Destroy my hatred of a certain class, race or type of people?

Have you come to destroy my self-centeredness?

Destroy my holding of grudges?

Destroy my insistence of having my own way?

Destroy my racism, my sexism, my long held and clung to assumptions about people and what is “normal” and how society should be ordered?

The demon could care less if you doubt their existence… as if your doubt could determine their reality.

No, the demon cares if it is exposed, and the demon departs when Jesus with clear teaching and loving eye calls it out and sends it on its way.

That is the good news this day, and in this lesson.  It is also the warning to us.   If you listen to Jesus, and move to follow him, expect some demons in your midst to scream.

“A Snap In Your World.” Mark 1:14-20

What was it that made those first disciples follow Jesus?   How could they have just walked away from their trade, their families, everything they knew and were comfortable doing to follow him?

How could James and John have just gotten up and walked out on their own father, leaving all that he was ready to pass on to them as their inheritance, the family fishing business, rocking in the surf at the edge of the lake?”

We wonder and muse about the actions of those first disciples, probably because we have a sense that if we could just discover what motivated those first disciples’, we might find reasons ourselves for taking up the invitation of Jesus to come and follow him.

I’m sure that you have mused about this yourself, as I have.  What made them do it?

Was it because Jesus was so charismatic?  Is that what made them drop everything and go after him.  Some have speculated that maybe the physical presence of Jesus was just so magnetic, attracting large crowds and individuals alike.  You had but to take one look at Jesus, hear him speak and you couldn’t help yourself from wanting to follow him.

Maybe if I just met Jesus more personally I’d find my motivation to follow him?   And so we try to find ways to get to know Jesus on a personal level, or want to know him as a “personal Lord and Savior” hoping that the mojo of intimacy will somehow spur us into wanting to follow.

For some, that actually works on a certain level, but there is a danger in making Jesus too personal.   You can get so wrapped up in what Jesus does for you personally that you forget that Jesus’ primary interest was not in personal gratification of his followers, but in calling them to follow where he leads, which are often difficult places.  Too much emphasis on the “Personal Savior” risks that we make of Jesus simply a “life coach.”  There to encourage us when we’re feeling down, and nothing more.

Or we speculate that what made those fishermen give up their trade was their own sense of fatigue with fishing, that anything really beat cleaning fish, so why not take Jesus up on his offer, what did they have to lose?

We can make of Jesus a kind of “logical choice.”   Fishing was in decline in the Sea of Galilee, so why not pursue other ventures.   Following Jesus was a career move, or it had to do with serving, doing, denying yourself, acting solely on the part of others.

We look at the part of the story about John and James leaving their father in the boat and assume that following Jesus is going to demand us giving up our own comfort and connections, and so we jettison the things of this world in preference to pursuing the Kingdom promised.

If the “personal savior” carries with it the danger of turning Jesus into a life coach, this logical reason to follow carries with it a danger of thinking of Jesus only as the great Social Worker who demands our action, our following, and who has really concern for your personal wellbeing.

Reinforced with the stories of how Jesus “gave all” we find ourselves caught in never ending pursuit of giving ourselves away and criticizing any comfort for ourselves.  We forsake friends, family, relationships all in the name of “serving Jesus” and then marvel at how burned out and tired we start to feel.

We forget that we are, first of all, NOT the Savior or the Son of God.

Secondly, we ignore how often it was that Jesus often led by example in the area of self-care.  We ignore how he would go off and encourage his disciple to do the same to a lonely place to pray, to retreat from the unending demands of ministry of what others will extract from you.

We forget that Jesus hung out at weddings, seemed to have a good time, was even called a drunkard and a glutton by his critics and always seemed to find time to share a good meal or hang out at a friend’s house.  He didn’t personally accumulate worldly possessions, but he didn’t seem to mind enjoying the benefits of a good banquet or a comfortable lodging with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when the opportunity was offered!

We search this story looking for clues as to what led those first disciples to follow, and in focusing on the story of the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John we perhaps miss the big clue that Mark gives us.

It’s almost a throw-away line, but it does set the stage for all that follows, did you catch it?

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee….”

Each of the Gospel writers give us a glimpse into the political and social upheaval of the time of Jesus, and the time in which the Gospel writers lived, and there is a common thread.

Luke sets Jesus’ birth and ministry in the context of Caesar, Quirinius, heavy and burdensome taxation and disregard for the poor.  The “crack in history” of living under Roman occupation where the rich and power pay no attention to the suffering of those in their shadow.

Matthew sets Jesus’ birth in the political realities of living under Herod’s corrupt governance and a Temple complicit with the Roman occupation.  It is the crack of history of being a specific people bereft of leadership and looking for God’s promised one of old.

And Mark?  Well it’s this one throw-away line about the arrest of John that tips us off. This is the straw that breaks the back, that sets Jesus on his trajectory of proclamation.  John has been silenced.   He is no longer able to rally the people with expectation.  The preaching of repentance in the wilderness is gone, no one is preparing the way.  He sits in Herod’s prison.  Who now will take up the task of proclaiming God’s Kingdom coming near?  What does John’s arrest do to all those who have been looking at him as a herald of a new and better world?

What if the motivator for following Jesus is not how we are attracted to him, or how smart a move it would be to follow him, or how logical a choice, but rather something that snaps in the world in which we live?

What if what motivated those fishermen was not just Jesus’ invitation, but also looking around at their world and seeing the crack in history in which they lived.  This is the moment when the call of God corresponds to the call on their own personal situation, the thing that drives one to say, “there has to be another way….a better way, and I have to do it, be part of it.”

When you look back over the course of history with those eyes, you recognize how it is that this invitation of Jesus works.

You recognize it in events that changed the course of history, and the understanding of people.

You see it in St. Francis of Assisi, who was born to wealth and privilege, but when he looked around at the result of the concentration of wealth and privilege in 13th Century Italy, something snapped in his world to make him think, “There has to be another way…” and so he renounced his own status and wealth, gave away his possessions to take up the life of a mendicant. Now he was concerned with the care of all creatures.   It wasn’t the Kingdom of God, but it was a piece of the Kingdom that seemed to be in step with Jesus’ words to “go out two by two and take no purse, no extra tunic, no extra pair of sandals….”

You see it in an Augustinian Monk in the 14th Century who dared to question the power of the Church and usher in the Reformation.   He looked at Feudal Society of his day, the sale of indulgences and ignorance of the scriptures and came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way.  And so, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and embarked on proclaiming justification by grace through faith.  It wasn’t exactly the Kingdom of God, but it was closer than the tyranny of conscience and the fear of purgatory that had come before.

This past week we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, who began as a Baptist minister and never intended to become a public figure, but found himself at 27 leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott.   In his “Kitchen Table Experience” he describes how his world snapped under the weight of Jim Crow south and the injustice of racism.  A phone call threatened to blow up his house and blow out his brains.

Shaken, King went to the kitchen, made himself a cup of coffee, but soon buried his face in his hands. He began to pray aloud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”  

King later explained what happened next: “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.’”

Martin Luther King did not bring in the Kingdom of God, but his dream and vision and the call to keep standing up brought it just a little bit closer than it had been before.

I think you get my drift here.

What is it that motivates a person to follow Jesus?  What gets you out of the boat, makes you leave the nets behind, and changes your course in life?

It isn’t just looking at Jesus, finding him attractive or charismatic.

It isn’t just making a logical choice to follow as if it were a good career move, or a last ditch effort out of your poor circumstances.

No, what motivates people to follow is finding yourself living in the crack of history and destiny, and having now to make a decision about how you will move forward from here, and who you will depend upon as you make that decision.

John has been arrested, and so … now what?   Now what for the fishermen?  Now what for our community?  Jesus offers an invitation, and stands with us in the crack of history and circumstances offering to walk with us as we walk with him in imagining a better world, a better way.

We all of us live in a crack in history, … our particular crack.

All of us have a moment when our world snaps in some way.  It may not be momentous in the eyes of the world, but it is in our own perception and understanding for us and those whom we love.

Maybe it is the moment of personal tragedy.

Maybe it is a job-related event, the sense of not going anywhere or the call to something else.

Often, it’s not a moment of our own choosing.  It is the news report that something has happened and now we must make our own “now what?” choice, mustering all the prayer and courage we can to listen for the voice within us.

Today the Gospel is that the invitation made to Peter, James, Andrew and John is made still to us, in our own particular crack in history.  An invitation and promise that Jesus will walk with us and stand with us as we follow what we perceive to be his lead, his guiding us in what Jesus would have us do in this moment.

I cannot pretend to tell you want you must do.

I cannot begin to guess what your pathway may be, or what you may find yourself called upon to do.

But this I can assure you.  As you follow where Jesus leads, the Kingdom of God will come a little bit closer.

“Tagged” John 1:43-51

Where did you get to know Jesus?

John’s treatment of the call of the disciples is a little bit different than what we find in the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In those Gospels we are drawn a picture of Jesus who strides out after the event of his Baptism, driving by the Spirit to begin assembling his “team.”

Jesus walks by the Lake shore and calls Fishermen from their boats.

Jesus walks through the streets and calls a tax collector from his table.

Jesus walks, and people, crowds follow looking to him for teaching, or healing or to raise questions meant to confront or confound.

That’s the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, a man on the move who gathers, attracts, and challenges.

But John’s Gospel is built a little differently.   Instead of a “driven” Jesus, we have a Jesus who performs signs, who engages in long conversations with Nicodemus, with the Woman at the Well, who hangs out at wedding feasts, and around the Temple on several occasions and so is no stranger to the chief priests and scribes, more of a recurring annoyance.

This is a Jesus (in other words) who we get to “know” a little bit more.  It is a Jesus who is maybe more attuned to our sensibilities in a social media influenced culture.

In today’s Gospel, it’s almost like Facebook isn’t it, minus the computers and handheld devices.

Jesus meets Philip, who is “tagged” by Jesus, and who we know is also tagged by Peter and Andrew as friends.  Philip then goes on to tag Jesus, and brings him along so that Nathaniel can meet him as well, but when Jesus sees Nathaniel it’s almost like he’s seen him in the news feed before.  “Here is a true Israelite, one in whom there is no guile….. I saw you under the fig tree before we met!”

It’s not exactly a “viral” Jesus, but the picture we get in John’s Gospel is of a Jesus who is most certainly more socially interactive.    It’s not just Jesus going out and calling the 12, now he’s got this web of people all interacting, calling to one another “come and see.”

It’s not a “Jesus in spurts” of healing, and then retreating, teaching and then withdrawing, the enigmatic Jesus who sets his face to Jerusalem and then invites us to get in step, take up your cross, and follow.”  In John we meet a Jesus who seems to have time to chit-chat, who takes the time needed to get to know a person, and who then offers life abundant, living water, and life everlasting.

So, I’ll ask you again, where did you get to know Jesus?  When did you “tag” him in your life?

For some of us that’s a difficult question to answer.  It’s difficult because, well, Jesus has always just been kind of been hanging around.   We heard about Jesus from Sunday School teachers and pastors.   We sang “Jesus loves me” ever since we can remember.  Our “getting to know” Jesus has been a life-long venture.

Still, there may be faces and moments that stand out, even for those who have always had him around.

Maybe it’s the little old lady who taught you in Sunday School.

Maybe it was the camp counselor who listened and talked to you of their faith as you wove a friendship bracelet, or sat around a campfire.

Maybe you got to know Jesus on a mission trip, or working side by side with other people building a house or stitching a quilt or packing a pantry order.  Meeting Jesus in the doing of the work as disciples.

Or maybe you got to know Jesus from the preaching of that beloved pastor, or the book study led by the retired teacher, or at the coffee shop gathering, or the song that moved.

Maybe you didn’t really get to know Jesus until your faith was tested in some way. The decision to enter a field of study, or a job that didn’t go so well at first.   The health scare or the family struggle that drove you to your knees.

We all have our stories, (in other words) of moments, even in our “always there” experience of when we got to know Jesus a little bit better, where the promises became a bit more powerful and clear.

Still others of us here may have quite a different response to that “where did you get to know Jesus?” question.  Not everyone grew up singing “Jesus loves me.”

Some will tell you about getting to know Jesus late in life.

Reading a Gospel for the first time seeking ammunition as an atheist to use against those silly Christians, only to discover in the reading the living God and the beginning of faith.

Others got to know Jesus after marrying a spouse who continued in their faith, absorbing new habits and raising new questions never before entertained.

Maybe you got to know Jesus after you had kids of your own and wanted more for them than you had as you were growing up.

And maybe you are in the corner with Nathaniel this morning, still trying to decide what you think about Jesus.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  he snorts.  You can practically hear him questioning what that backwater Galilean town has to offer him?

Maybe you are right there with Nathaniel today in your own skepticism.

Whether you’re a person who grew up with Jesus always in the background or someone who is new to this matter of ordering your life around him, you ask the question deep down, “What does a 2000 year old small town Galilean who spouts pithy little sayings and teachings really have to offer me?  Is it anything good?

I’m not pointing out the “Nathaniel Skepticism” here to push us into any overtly political conversations or to be disparaging, but rather to point out that these questions and struggles continue to hover for both those who have gotten to know Jesus over many years and for those who are new to the invitation to follow.

Can anything “good” come out of following Jesus in this crazy world today?  Is it worth my effort, my time, and all the complications that come because of it for me to “get to know” Jesus?

It is a fair question.

Isn’t it far easier to simply “tip my hat to religion,” and then just live the way I want to, the way I please, the way that is in step with the direction of Empire and that doesn’t put me in conflict with the way the world works?

After all, “When did you get to know Jesus?” is a question that seems to be soon followed by, “Will it make any difference?”

Will I change?

Will I risk loving my neighbor instead of looking out for myself?

Will I cross and open borders and boundaries, or fortify them?

Am I going to be careful not to mix things up too much, just keep to my own opinions and my own areas of comfort, or will I follow this Jesus of John’s Gospel in getting to know those who are very different from who I am, opening myself up to dialog with them that may lead to life?

When did you get to know Jesus?  Did you?  Do you?

I don’t want to be too hard on you, and I especially don’t want you to be too hard on yourself in this matter because getting stuck on whether we know Jesus or not, for that misses the Gospel moment in this story.

For all the introductions going on, all the “tagging” of one another, all the “come and see” moments, the core of this story really has to do with what Nathaniel asks Jesus.

When did YOU get to know me?”

This is question that comes when Nathaniel is most skeptical, and it is the question that strips him bare and causes him to make his profession of faith.

What Nathaniel wants to know is when Jesus got to know him so well?

Nathaniel, with all his skepticism, all his doubts and foibles, all his bad-mouthing of Jesus’ own home town and grumbling about the world, is caught off guard by this man who seems to know him.

When did Jesus get to know Nathaniel?   Was it not in the midst of all those struggles, doubts, and failings he was voicing?  Feeling?

Isn’t that why Jesus says, “here’s one in which there is no guile.”   Here’s a guy who isn’t afraid to let it be known that he’s not sold on this “found the Messiah” thing at all, that he can’t see what is in it for him, or how it could possibly change his world.

The moment of grace and gospel in this story is not found in Nathaniel getting to know Jesus.   There will be plenty of time for that.

“Getting to know” Jesus doesn’t become a kind of “ramp up” into doing the right thing.

The moment of grace and gospel is found in that Jesus knows Nathaniel… and knowing what Nathaniel is like, still comes out to meet him and wants to keep him in the conversation.

Maybe getting to know Jesus isn’t the point of our lives either.

We’re going to be who we will be, and oh, we’ll revert back to the old, skeptical, cynical self in a heartbeat.

That’s just who we are.

But who we are is known by Jesus, and that makes all the difference!

Our confession of faith is not found ultimately in learning enough, changing enough, getting enough of this “following” stuff right to be comfortable around Jesus.

Our confession is found in realizing that Jesus is comfortable with us, right where we are right now.

That doesn’t mean we might not change, for Jesus also seems to know we will be as a result of being in conversation with him, and with the scriptures.   As we stay in conversation and contact with Jesus, we follow, we grow, we challenge our own assumptions and become convinced that Jesus is the Son of God.   As we continue in relationship and conversation with Jesus in our everyday lives, we are shown greater things, and given opportunity to follow in ways we could not quite imagine from a distance.

When did you get to know Jesus?   We can point to moments, events, things in the past, and those are all good things.

But when we get to know Jesus is more about what we decide to do right now, and in the near future.  We will get to know Jesus in the midst of our ongoing conversations with him, and about him, and in our connection with our neighbor.

That’s what John’s Gospel shows us this day.  That’s the “good news of a Jesus who “tags” us.  A Jesus who chooses to walk with us even when we’re skeptical, and who keeps us open to our neighbors and to living with his ongoing conversation in our world.

RRRRRIIIIPPPPPPP……. Mark 1:4-11

We aspire to be a polite society.  It is valued, or at least it was.

I was taught growing up to make sure that I said “Please” and “thank-you” as a common courtesy and an expectation which was rewarded.  Things that are done in a proper and orderly fashion will be rewarded with action.   Withhold common courtesies or manners and the rewards are withdrawn.

“No cookie unless you say ‘please.’”

That’s a part of what is perplexing about society today.   It appears that the rewards system, the orderliness of things is thrown out of kilter.

Course, rough speech is hailed as “speaking your mind” or “telling it like it is.”

Those who acquiesce when caught in an indiscretion are called “weak.”

Lying is heralding now as being “shrewd” or “tough” and is excused because it gets results.

It is disorienting when what is expected is thrown into disarray.

In the church too, we have our strong desire to have things done politely and in good order.   We cite our constitutions, we construct our committees and teams, we defer decisions to proper channels, do things in the proper way…..

We even talk about it in terms of a “fabric” don’t we, this interweaving of politeness and order.

The Fabric of society is such that it should be maintained.

The warp and weave of etiquette, the good order of things done properly, should be upheld at all times.  It is not unlike this fine shirt, lovely design, well crafted.  Infinitely useful because of its very construction, the way it is put together.

Well, all of that goes out the window today.

Because you see, today we are told that when God comes into this world, it is like this….. RIIIIPPPP……(Tear the shirt in half.)

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This is what pleases God in the baptism of Jesus…things being torn apart and ripped asunder.

The polite and orderly way of doing things that the Pharisees had help to construct, protect and value is cast aside.

There is nothing particularly polite or orderly about the ministry of Jesus as it unfolds.   Jesus spends time where most folks think he should not, with the sinners and tax collectors, He pays little heed to the rules adhered to by the Pharisees, and little regard for Jerusalem and the Temple.

Jesus also does not observe the polite niceties society prefers when it comes to those whom he encounters in his ministry.

He does not turn aside from beggars or the blind, but gets his hands dirty and heals them.

He does not keep a safe distance from the unclean, but allows them to touch him, and reaches out to touch them in return.

Jesus finds a way to make heroes of villains, lifting up the virtues of the Samaritans and Gentiles, and attributing faith to them; while pressing and criticizing the Pharisees, the “good church folk” for their lack of compassion, or their insistence on ritual, or their love of observing rules, pointing out the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in their own eye.

This is what God did in Jesus, and it begins at the Baptism in Mark’s Gospel.  God rips open the fabric of the world.

You and I, we look at this and would begin to make plans of how to repair it, how we might put it back together again, how to make it look like nothing ever happened to it.

But God has done this for a reason.   Heaven has been torn open so that it cannot be mended.  The Spirit that descends upon Jesus will be a restless one, driving Jesus to the wilderness.

The Spirit that descends in the ripping of the heavens blows where it wills.  It is a Spirit that cannot be contained or held back behind the veils any longer.  It will fall and alight upon whoever is open to it, whoever receives it.

Beloved, I want you to see this.

We make God out to be a God who likes orderliness, but then how do we explain this?   How do we understand a God who would choose to violently rip his own creation so that his Spirit can roam free?

And just in case you think I’m a bit off here, look ahead in Mark’s story.

The bookmarks of Jesus’ life are here.  The curtain of heaven is torn when he is baptized.

The curtain of the Temple will be torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross.

There is violence at both ends of this story of Jesus.  Tearing, rending of the things that are meant to hold back God, or designed to put God in God’s “proper” place… up in heaven, or locked within the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

This is what baptism is about, both Jesus’ baptism and ours.

It is, in a sense, about a violence done to us, an irreparable change.   It is the end of the polite separations we would like to make between God and ourselves.

It pleases God to rip into our world.

It pleases God to see his Son, the beloved, receiving this Spirit that will drive him in life, a restless, relentless Messiah who goes immediately, urgently about his ministry.

So then dare we say that it must also please God to see us receive that same Spirit and to see us driven as Jesus was.

It pleases God to see us driven by the Spirit to serve.

It pleases God to see us driven to question the polite boundaries of society, to reach out to the unclean, and to allow the unclean to touch us.

It pleases God to see us driven by our Baptism to act in unwise and incautious ways in order to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to drive out the demons of this world, and to heal the sick and mend the brokenhearted.

“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”

That is what God says to Jesus when the heavens are ripped open and the Spirit starts to drive him.

Dare we begin to believe that God would have the same to say to us?

What are we to make of a God who does such violence to the beauty of his creation?

Such a nice heavens, an orderly creation, torn to shreds.

Such a nice shirt, infinitely useful as a covering for the body.

What is it good for now?

Well, now, it can be used as rags to clean up the messes we find.

Now it can be used as bindings for the wounded, and support for the weak, the tender, the young plantings that cannot hold themselves up to bear their fruit.

Now what is torn can be fashioned into something new.   Perhaps a piece of a quilt to warm a cold child.

This is why God does violence to the creation in baptism.

God tears away the things that would separate him from us, and declares that WE are more beloved than all of that.

More precious and glorious to God than the wonders of the heavens are you…he’ll rip through them to get to you.

More precious and glorious than the finery of the Temple and all its wonders are you… God will tear those linens from top to bottom to be loose in the world among his people.

It’s time to do some violence.

It’s time to have some ripping done.

The veil, the polite veil of good order and seeing to our own interests first has got to be torn for the Spirit to begin to move freely in our lives and in this world.

Polite society is at an end.   The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Thanks be to God