“Lovers of Darkness” John 3:14-21

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

We are great lovers of darkness, of this there can be no doubt.

Flip through the channels on the television and take note of the number of procedural crime shows you will find.  NCIS, Law and Order, Criminal Minds, even PBS flourishes best when there is murder and mayhem to be observed and examined.

We are oddly fascinated by the dark side.

We break the world into “predator and prey.”

We are quick to point out that such divisions are hard and fast and that one is either one or the other.  We do not make moral judgments about such behavior, but rather simply accept it as a part of how this world is arranged.

We watch with morbid fascination as the lioness stalks her prey on the nature show, and then transfer that same fascination with every bit as much adrenaline anticipation when the car chase unfolds in the movie or on the breaking news.

Will he/she elude?  Or is the dark ending inevitable?   Even if you escape to live another day it is just a matter of time.

This the just the way the world is, has always been.

John’s gospel is a study in contrasts.   He introduces the events of Jesus with talk of light and darkness right from the beginning. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not prevail against it…”

The world is divided for John into insiders and outsiders.

There are those who follow Jesus, and those who oppose him and the Kingdom he comes to proclaim.

The complicating factor in that is that those who follow and those who oppose are often members of the same community.

So it is, that as John speaks of “the Jews,” he is talking about members of his own community who have rejected Jesus as Messiah.

John is (in other words) trying to make sense of why some look at Jesus and see God’s light shining, and why some look at Jesus and choose to make another choice.

It turns out to be complicated.

That’s one of the reasons why this Gospel reading for today is a little difficult to wrap our heads around, its complexity and what it tries to include and convey.

We’re most familiar with John 3:16-18, the “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… not to condemn, but the save it.”

But wrapped around that kernel is this talk of Moses lifting up serpents in the wilderness, and Jesus being lifted up, and the talk of judgment and condemnation already for those who do not believe.

It’s a little harder to pull all these things together, unless you remember that fundamentally we are great lovers of darkness, and the struggle against it is what the Gospel is all about.   Followers of Jesus know the world is arranged this way, predator and prey, light and dark, but the message of Jesus and of the Kingdom is that it does not have to remain this way.  The Kingdom of God does come!

We need to unpack that first part a bit, the story of Moses and the serpent on the pole.   If you listened to the reading from Numbers 21:4-9 today you were reminded of the story.  The people are complaining in the wilderness, and in response to their “poisonous words” against God and Moses, serpents are sent to afflict them.  When the people come to Moses with a heart of contrition asking for the serpents to be taken away, the solution God prescribes is for Moses to make a serpent of bronze and set it on a pole and lift it up, and if you are bitten by these “poisonous snakes”, then you are to look at the serpent and you will live.

In other words, face the venom you have brought upon yourselves, and you will find healing.

Face your own darkness!   Acknowledge it, don’t pretend it isn’t there, but repent of it and find life again!  That’s the lesson in the story from Numbers.   You may be lovers of complaining, (you stiff necked people in the wilderness,) but that does not mean that you cannot confront it, see it, acknowledge it and ultimately live!

In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.  Jesus says.  What could Jesus mean by that?

This is a prediction of the Cross, and what will we see in the events of Jesus’ crucifixion.

We will see just how much we love darkness in what the world does to Jesus!

We will see what we are capable of doing to the very love that came to save us.

We are capable of arresting the innocent.

We are capable of torturing the blameless.

We are capable of killing the very Savior of the world, because that Savior will not just let us alone.   Jesus will not let us retreat into our own darkness and our love of it and stay there.

From the cross Jesus will invite us to face the darkness that is within us, and to acknowledge it.  This is what we are capable of doing as human beings because we love the darkness!

We know this to be true.

You cannot turn on the television or read the newspaper without being reminded once again of our love of darkness.

Wars continue to rage, sides are drawn that make no sense, posturing and accusing and blaming and pointing of the finger.

Injustices continue to persist.

Racism persists, it rears its ugly head and even finds a refuge in the powerful, the intelligent.

Fascism returns, and masks itself in populist thoughts, and justifies itself in the overturning of those who are different, the elites.

Inequality of gender and race continue, and are even promulgated as virtues, “the way things used to be”, a utopian existence for those in power and privilege to be hearkened back to, returned to.

Inequity of opportunity, oppression of privilege, divisions of ideologies swirl all around.

We might be tempted to say, “that’s just the way it is, predator and prey, so better to eat than be eaten.”

But Jesus has something else to say about that.    “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

The very things that Jesus came to proclaim an end to are clung to all the more because it is so hard and complicated to let go of such things for us.

John’s Gospel becomes an exploration of how light and dark interplay in our lives.  We get to see how Jesus challenges and changes people, and how that will play out in the lives of these characters whom we will meet.  By watching them, we get clues about our own “love of darkness”, how it works and how Jesus overcomes it.

We meet Nicodemus, who acknowledges that Jesus is indeed a teacher sent by God, but still comes by night, unwilling to be seen making further inquiries.

Nicodemus may long to understand the draw of the light he sees in Jesus, but not so much that he is willing to risk his stature or position in the community.  He chooses darkness as his cover, the night as his ally.   He will lurk in the shadows until the end of the story when he comes with Joseph of Arimithea to claim the body and publicly at last bear witness to Jesus.

Is Nicodemus my story, your story?   Are you drawn to Jesus but not quite willing to commit?  Do you inquire in the dark, but hide out in the light?

The Samaritan woman at the well is drawn by Jesus’ light.  She is wary at first, talking with a stranger to her in the heat of the day, breaking the boundaries.   But when Jesus probes too close to her secrets, she retreats to the presumed safety of the darkness.   She asks of him questions as deep as the well water that she knows are safe, conundrums that have been argued over for centuries about where the proper place to worship should be?  She is hoping to hide in the safety of long dark questions that are unanswerable.

But Jesus shines, and the questions dissipate, and in the end, it is way Jesus dispels the darkness, eliminating all her “hiding places” that captures her.  “Come see a man who told me everything I have ever done.  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Is the Samaritan woman my story, your story?   Afraid to engage Jesus too much lest he find out what we’re hiding that he may not approve of?   Able to finally proclaim him when our last secret is stripped away, and we can tell others it’s all right to have him strip away theirs as well?

As much as we love darkness, try to hide in it, are fascinated by it or see it as our last safe retreat, it does not stand against Jesus.

“The light shines in the darkness,” John affirms, “and the darkness does not prevail against it.”

We cling to this promise, but not without the sudden realization that what is true for Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well is true for us.

We do love our darkness, and we will try our best to stay in the shadows if we can, resign ourselves to thinking this is just the way things are, and they will never change.

So it is, that Jesus says he must be lifted up, so that we can face what we are capable of doing, even to him, see it, repent of it and find life.

We must face the darkness inside so that the light of Jesus can shine in and heal us.

We must acknowledge what we are capable of doing before we can repent of it, see it as the poisonous thing that it is in our lives, in our community, in our world.

Such work is not easy.

John’s Gospel reminds us of this, for John fleshes out these characters so completely exactly so that we can face the darkness and our own fascination with it in our own lives.

We feel the shame of the woman caught in Adultery, and the powerful release of Jesus’ non-judgment of her.

We feel the bitter betrayal of a Peter thrice denies Jesus, even shouting, “I do not know him!” in the darkness, and the sweet power of forgiveness as Jesus invites him three times to “feed my sheep.”

Our mouths go dry at recognizing that our bitter words spoken against our neighbor are slanders thrown at the Savior who loves the world.

Every bitter cry for the illegal alien to go back home where they belong is a cry against Jesus, who is the ultimate alien in our midst.

Every crowd incited to yell “lock her up!” or “lock him up!” is little more than a repetition of the words of the angry mob in Jerusalem who once cried, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”

In Jesus lifted on the cross we witness what we are capable of doing, all of us, any of us, when our love of darkness takes over, and we do evil in the sight of God.

And in Jesus lifted on the cross, we also witness what God is capable of doing.  Silencing the shouts and restoring care for one another.

We are lovers of darkness, it is true, but just beyond this lifting up of Jesus is another lifting up that is promised.

When we face what we are capable of doing, and repent of it, then the door is opened for us to receive what God is capable of doing.

God is capable of healing, forgiving, and ultimately — resurrecting.


“Business As Usual” John 2:13-24

It was “business as usual” at the Temple during Passover.

Pilgrims were making their way from the far flung corners of the world back to Jerusalem to celebrate the events of the Exodus, the escape from the bondage of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised land.

Business as usual.   There were all these visitors to the temple.   For the convenience of those who had travelled far for worshiper, (and for the very life blood of the celebration of Passover itself,) the temple vendors were engaged in the essential trade of the day as they had been for centuries.

You could change your Roman coins with that idolatrous graven image of Caesar which said “Caesar is Lord” on it for official Temple coinage that did not break the 2nd commandment of “no graven images.” The money changers were there so that your offering could be given.

It was too far to bring your own unspotted lamb to be sacrificed and roasted if you came from the far reaches of the diaspora.  It was simply not practical for travelers to bring one from their own flock from so far away, so here at the Temple available for purchase were certified and approved sacrificial animals for all your Passover needs.

Purchase the sacrifice required by the tenants of the law, be that a turtledove or a young bull, and do what the law prescribed.   Here the offerings that what had been done for generations, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the thanks-offering……could all be arranged.

It was business as usual until Jesus showed up.  With his arrival on this day, the usual day’s commerce, trade, rite and ritual were abruptly brought to a screeching halt!

Everyone is confused about Jesus’ apparent anger here.  It makes no sense to his disciples, nor to the temple officials nor or the vendors that he displaces.

We have always made sense of this gospel story by assuming that all of this activity in the Temple was somehow corrupt or illegal.   And, perhaps some of it was, but the majority of it was above board!

As I pointed out, this is the very thing that has to happen in order for the Temple to operate during the festival!  Coins have to be changed, animals have to be provided…so what is it that sets Jesus off here if not corruption?

It is, I would have you consider, the very attitude of “business as usual”…..

In John’s Gospel you see, we are told in the beginning that “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…”

God has come now into this world in Jesus, and God is again “tabernacled” – living with and reside alongside God’s people as God had in the Exodus experience.

Then God had been a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night as they marched through the desert.

Or, back then in the Exodus God had loomed over the Ark of the Covenant within the Tabernacle, seated upon the “Mercy Seat.”

Or, back then in the Exodus event, God had been the stormy presence on Mt. Sinai, that Moses would ascend into to speak with and receive the Commandments while the people cowered below in fear of the sight.

God had come in the past to be present with God’s people in smoke and fire and lightning and thick presence.

But now, God has come to be in the midst of God’s people in the Word made flesh, the very presence of God in Jesus.

But the people were still going to the Temple as if God were to be found there in that building, behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies in some way.

“Business as usual….”   We change the coins, we do the sacrifice, we eat the lamb shank and the bitter herbs, and look forward for Messiah to come ….some day.    That’s what the people are doing.

And there would be nothing wrong with any of that, if it weren’t for the fact that the Messiah they have long awaited happens to now be “in the house!”

If you want to know why Jesus seems a bit peeved here, it may very well be for the same reason that parents get a bit peeved when their own children behave as if they aren’t in the same room with them–when the children behave as if the parent does not exist, as if they were not around.

“Hey!   Over here!  (Whistle!)   Remember me? I’m the one you’re hoping shows up some day as you celebrate this feast, and guess what, I’m here now!   Stop acting like it is just “business as usual!”

And that is a wonderful place for us to jump in to talk about what this Gospel lesson may have to say to us.   For, you see, we too like “business as usual!”

We like a certain predictability to the way things run, in our lives and particularly in our places of worship.

We prefer orderliness, rhythm, and ritual to a sense of urgency or things overturned.

We like, “business as usual.”

It is safe.

It is predictable.

And, above all else, it is convenient.

But, when Jesus enters the scene, he ends up being none of those things!

Jesus is not safe!

Oh, we would trust him with our very lives.  We trust him with our children.  We trust him to be there for us, but that does not mean that he is safe.  For all too often, our prayers to have Jesus come and be present for us, to teach our children, to change our lives means that the orderliness we may have craved is thrown out the window.

Jesus is not predictable.   He is reliable, but not predictable.

Just when we think we may have Jesus figured out, that we may have some sense of certainty about what he might think of something, how he would probably respond to a given situation, Jesus has a way of throwing a curve at us.

Who would have expected that the Son of God would be comfortable letting a harlot wash his feet, and pointing to that as the proper preparation for his own death and burial?

Who would have expected that the compassionate and caring Jesus who dandled children upon his knee and who spoke well in all circumstances would be short with a Gentile woman, compare her situation to a “dog” and hesitate in granting her the grace and mercy of God that she had sought from him for her daughter?

Who would have thought that the one who healed so many sick whose names he never knew, would not come running when his friend Lazarus was dying?  That he would instead take his time, and show up what looks like “too late?”

Just when we think we know what Jesus would probably do or say in any given situation, he is prone to fashioning a whip from the available cords and launching into doing the unexpected.

Jesus is not predictable when it comes to how the Kingdom will be proclaimed, and to whom it may be revealed, and who may be brought into it.

And Jesus is not convenient. His words pop into our minds at the most inopportune times.

The beggar is standing on the street corner holding up his cardboard sign, and we can think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn’t give our hard earned cash to this bum.  He’ll just use it for booze.  He probably rakes in more in an hour than you or I do for our work.  He looks able bodied enough, why doesn’t he find a job?   But then the words of Jesus come intruding into the back of our minds… “as you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me…”

It is so inconvenient to be reminded by Jesus of that command just as I have made up my mind on my own best course of action!

Jesus is simply not safe.

Jesus is not predictable.

And most certainly, Jesus is not convenient.

What Jesus is, according to this Gospel, is driven!

Jesus is driven by a passion to make the Kingdom known.

Jesus is driven by a sense of urgency that says “business as usual” is NOT the way God works in this world anymore.

And so, Jesus fashions the whip out of the available cords, and turns over the tables, and brings the “business as usual” of the Temple to a screeching halt.   He does this so that people will look at him and wonder and ask, “Who are you to do THIS?”   And there, there is the opening to begin to proclaim the Kingdom, and the Word made Flesh, and God now dwelling in your midst to show you a different way to live.

And you and I, as disciples, what do you suppose Jesus expects of us?   Do you suppose that he expects “business as usual?”

Or would Jesus call us to be driven as well?

Driven to make known the Kingdom?

Driven to care for those whom we meet day to day in such a way that we don’t just let them stumble on as if God were not present in the here and now?

Driven to let others know that God is not in some far off place, or safely tucked away in some temple somewhere, but that that God is on the scene right now?

What would Jesus do if he showed up here this morning?   Sit politely in the back row, sing a few hymns, nod through the sermon, sip a cup of coffee after the service, and then make his way home to pull the roast out of the crock pot?

I think not!

I think, Jesus would do something very — inconvenient.

I think Jesus might just stand up and say, “what are you all doing sitting around here?   There is a world of hurting people out there that I died for, get to know them!  Heal them, feed them, invite them to become your friends and bring them back here where they can learn how unsafe, how unpredictable, and how inconvenient following me can be!”

That would not be “business as usual” in the congregation, I know.

But in the Gospel today, watching people go about “business as usual” seems to be what drives Jesus nuts!

“Thrust Upon You” Mark 3:31-38

It is hard for us to hear the words of Jesus with the same impact that Peter and the disciples heard them.

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  Jesus says.

When we hear these words, “Take up your cross” our minds are already heavily influenced by the cross as a religious symbol.

I preach under a cross.

We hang our sorrows on a cross with strips of black cloth.

We wear it around our neck as jewelry and dedicate a whole wall to finding as may “beautiful” or unique ones as we can.

How can we hear these words the way Jesus’ disciples heard them?  Maybe the answer to that is that we can’t.

Or maybe the key to getting close to hearing them is to learn what it meant in Jesus’ day to “take up the cross.”

The cross was the punishment reserved by the Roman Empire for those who were found guilty of insurrection and speaking against the emperor, and it worked just the way it is described in the Gospels.

If accused of insurrection, there was a trial.

If accused and suspected guilty, there was a public scourging to get you to recant.  Public flogging was a way to keep people in line, as much to deter others from speaking out as anything else.

If scourging did not yield the desired results, then it was crucifixion.  You were paraded through the streets to the place of execution, carrying the crossbeam upon which the deed would take place.

A soldier would say to you, “pick it up.”    It is something you are compelled to take up, and not of your own choosing.

So key to understanding what it was like to hear Jesus talking about “taking up your cross and following” are these two elements.

It comes with an accusation against you that you must publicly account for.

It comes with a moment of decision about what you will do when confronted with that accusation.

So, I’ve tried to think of a way to help us hear this call to “take up a cross” as Peter might have heard it, and the best I could come up with is to do this.

(Photo – Uncle Sam praying to a cross of AR-15)

Now, just throwing that picture up I know has already raised most of the blood pressures in the room.

Some of you in this room are thinking, “how DARE the pastor bring up the politics and divisive images of the gun debate in this way!”

Some of you in the room are thinking “FINALLY, the pastor is going to talk about the gun debate and give us some direction as to his thinking.”

Some of you are thinking “I just want to get up and walk out right now because I already KNOW what the pastor is going to say and it’s not the position I agree with!”

Well, you can relax or be disappointed, because I’m not going to say anything about the gun debate or this political cartoon.

I just wanted you all to Experience this moment.

Things are going along, the sermon is ho-hum happening and all at once something happens that stops everyone right in their tracks and you get that sinking feeling that something is going to happen that YOU cannot avoid.

In the case of the Gospel for today, Jesus throws in an element that none of his disciples expected, the prediction of his own suffering and death at the hands of the leaders in Jerusalem!

When we think of “bearing the cross” we tend to conjure up images of noble efforts undertaken, difficult courses of action willingly chosen or endured.

We think of Jesus going to Jerusalem, but knowing the end of the story already, so the “sting” of the crucifixion is mitigated by the resurrection.

We have come to associate the call to discipleship, the call to “cross bearing” as some heroic venture, as if it were something to be sought out.

But this is the key to unlocking Jesus’ words to Peter and the disciple\s response this day.  You don’t get to choose what following Jesus will thrust into your face.

The Cross isn’t something you choose, it is something you find imposed upon you and something to which you will simply have to react.

How you react is what this story is about.

Jesus starts talking about where all this Kingdom of God stuff is ultimately heading.  To proclaim the Kingdom of God is to put yourself on a collision course with the Kingdom of this world, a collision course with the power of Caesar and the Empire.   “He said all of this quite openly” Mark says, and Peter reacts.

“Don’t talk like that, Jesus!   Don’t talk about politics!  Don’t talk about suffering, being rejected, killed!  That’s not what we signed up for!”

It draws Jesus’ rebuke and clarification.  This is GOING to be imposed upon you.  Any who want to become my followers, Jesus says, are going to have to deal with this and take up the cross as it is imposed upon them.  You will have a moment of decision thrust upon you, a time when something is put in your path that you will have to look at and make a decision about based upon what you believe, and you will have to decide whether to pick it up and follow Jesus or not.

Dr. James Nestigen, a church history professor and Luther scholar was fond of saying that you don’t have to go looking for your cross, it will find you.   He would go on to say that there are four vocations in this life where a cross will be readily imposed upon you.

There is the family.  You will suffer 1000 little crucifixions in growing up, in parenting, in your relationships with your siblings and parents.

You don’t get to choose your family.

You don’t get to choose the abusive parent, the wayward child, the marital tensions or the breakup that follows.

You don’t get to choose the actions of your loved ones, the mistakes that they will make, the difficult places they will put you in.

Plenty of cross bearing takes place in the vocation of being part of a family, and none of it will be of your own choosing.   There will be moments when you have to make a decision about what to do, and where to go, and whose side to take, and how to proceed in the best interest of everyone involved.

There is the vocation of work.   Again, while you might choose your job, you won’t be allowed to choose the dynamics of that workplace, or the scheming that might go on or that you might even find yourself caught up in.

You don’t get to choose the market trends that will cause you to prosper or cause your job to come to an end, no matter how good you are at it.

You don’t get to choose the fact that hard work does not always result in reward.   There are plenty of crosses imposed upon you in the workplace, from relationships with fellow workers, to dealing with the powers and structures that loom and threaten.  The inequalities of race, gender and who is compensated fairly, or who gets advancements and why.  Moments of decision of who you will align with and what you will do.

There is the vocation of church.  Here too, a cross awaits.  A former Minnesota Attorney General once quipped that he much preferred political fights to church fights.  Political fights were generally cleaner and less personally malicious.  Strange as it may seem, the place that talks most about the cross is also the place where you are most likely to experience some crucifixions, for here relationships are complex and the sense of right and wrong in situations tends to be amplified.  Here the tolerance for change and the diversity in belief can be short and narrow.  Feelings of righteousness in your own firmly held beliefs and justifications about your own point of view on matters are generally rigidly held and fervently conditioned, so that the grace you should be extending is in short supply.  The church will crucify both leaders and followers, it’s got a lot of practice in the whole area of crucifixion.

Finally, there is the vocation of the government.  You will be asked to die for your country, one way or another.   We understand that particularly well right now in our current polarized political environment.

Speak against the current administration, or in support of it, and a host of labels and opinions will hammer you.

Speak a word of opposition or agreement to current policies, and a ready supply of wood and nails will come your way.

You don’t have to go looking for a cross, one will find you.  Nestigen would repeat, over and over again.

And, you’ll perhaps best know when your cross has found you when those other two things mentioned in this story start chafing at you.

Profiting and Shaming.

Who is profiting from the current situation?

Who is being shamed, and will I join in or choose to speak against the shaming of others?

The take away from this Gospel lesson is that you must be ready for this moment, for following Jesus is going to lay before you something that you are going to be called upon to pick up and do something with or about.

Maybe it’s in the realm of the family.

Maybe it will be at your workplace.

Maybe it will be in the church.

Or maybe, this picture is your cross to bear at this moment.  Crosses to bear are plentiful in the area of government and citizenship.  Which one will you take up?  Or will you join with Peter in saying, “let’s not talk about this…”

It is coming, Jesus says to Peter and all those who have followed him to this point.  A moment when you will have to decide, when you will have something thrust upon you that you will either have to pick up or be tempted to walk away.

If you want to follow Jesus, you will have to pick it up.

You won’t be able to avoid it, for following Jesus just won’t let you.

“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.

“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.


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?


“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.