“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?