Sunday is coming! “When the sky is falling…Trust God” Mark 13:1-8

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” (Mark 13:8)

Jesus may not be describing a dystopian future to fear as he is describing the real world in which we live. He is calling a thing what it is: the world is violent and unfair; full of forces more powerful than us we cannot control. Our present day news cycle reminds us of how dangerous and fragile the world is.

This scene takes place as Jesus and the disciples leave the Temple after a few days of teaching and calling out the hypocrisy and corruption of the religious establishment. The cross on Good Friday is only days away. The disciples comment that the buildings are beautiful – a hope built in stone that God is near and they will be God’s people forever. Jesus tells them that the Temple will be razed, the things built by human hands will pass away and all they take for granted will be destroyed. The birth pangs are coming.

What is the message?

Fear? Wrath? Helplessness?

No.

Trust God. Especially when the world is on fire and everything we know seems to be shattering into pieces…

Our sense of permanence is broken into pieces every time our temples lay in ruins.

Our sense of control is thwarted by every new disaster; every new tragedy; every new horror unleashed into the world.

Our sense of justice is challenged every time the innocent suffer and the guilty go free; the impoverished are squeezed as the greedy are rewarded; and the oppressors get away with exploiting the vulnerable.

Trust God.

Nature threatens us.

People threaten us.

Change threatens us.

Trust God.

Jesus does not teach us to avoid suffering or how to escape from life when it challenges our false sense of stability, security and scrutiny. He shows us how to face it when it feels like the sky is falling by living for others.

Do not be afraid. Pray. Act.

Trust God.

God is with you no matter what destructiveness threatens you. Jesus raises you to be part of a new community that brings life to a dying world. Stay attentive to today and all its troubles. Then love your neighbor with everything you’ve got.

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “Learning stewardship from a poor widow” Mark 12:38-44

But she out of her poverty, has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)
 
After reading through this passage a few times, this scene seems to say much more about faith than it does about financial giving. True, the widow puts her last two bits into the offering while the rich people congratulate themselves about the large sums they have offered. True, many (including this preacher) have used this story as a motivator to urge people to dig deep when it cones to financially supporting the work of the church. True, Jesus wants our whole lives and not just a portion of our time, efforts and possessions. When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:24) it is a full-time, whole-life devotion he invites us to pursue.
 
But there is another angle to explore in this text that is worth considering. Notice the difference between the wealthy and the poor widow. They don’t give this money for the good it might do, the people it might support, or the programs it might expand or continue. They give it to feel good about themselves. They give it out of obligation. They give it so others can see them because they are concerned about what others think about who they are. This passage calls us to check our own motivations for the good we do (or hope to do) or the things we support through our time, efforts and resources.  Is our giving selfless or for the greater good? Or do we give to primarily serve our own pride?
 
The widow on the other hand is alone. She has no one to impress. She doesn’t give her last bits to feel good; she goes to the Temple to give her last possessions away so she can die. She doesn’t give out of obligation; she gives away all sense of attachment she has left. She doesn’t care what others think; she has only come to be with God. She ultimately puts her life (and whatever comes next) into God’s mercy and care. What attachments keep you from giving your whole life to God? Maybe this is a stewardship text after all – but not in the ways we once thought. The question for us as both hearers of this story and as managers of the lives God has given to us is this: Which of these people we hope to be?
Do we manage what we have based on peer pressure? or can we dig a little deeper than that and focus on our relationship with God? Do our resources and relationships say more about what we hope others think about us or does our time, efforts and resources reflect our trust in God?
 
The widow is an example of faithfulness that brings our stripped-down selves before God saying,  There is nothing left to keep me from you. I am yours.”
 
I hope to trust in God like that. Do you?
 
PGS

Sunday is Coming! “Come Out!” John 11 for All Saints

“(Jesus) cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” (John 11:43)

Come out – followers of Jesus. Those whose uncertainty prevents them from trusting that where Jesus is leading or knows what he is doing. Those whose falsely projected courage reveals only their true fear underneath. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Come out – Mary and Martha; whose pain accuses Jesus of abandoning them in their time of need. Grief kept them from seeing the “resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) now embracing them. Get up. Turn around. Believe.

Come out – from behind your tears those who are in sorrow. Jesus weeps with you (John 11:35). His love embraces you. His life is given for you.

Come out – of the grave Lazarus. Be raised to new life. Join the banquet. Untie those bandages (John 11:44).

Come out – church. Stop hiding behind closed doors. Be not afraid. Take with you the promise of grace, mercy and peace that Jesus brings into the world. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).

Death has no power over you.

So why be afraid?

Rejoice and be glad for the Lord is near.

PGS

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”  (Revelation 21:4-5)

Sunday is coming! “Our Blindness and Bartimaeus” Mark 10:46-52

This is a beautiful and straightforward passage that is anything but simple as this encounter reveals much about ourselves as it does a blind man named Bartimaeus.

The story is goes like this…

Bartimaeus, blind and begging by the roadside outside of Jericho, calls out to Jesus for mercy (Mark 10:47-51). Jesus gives him sight and commends his faith. Bartimaeus then leaves Jericho to follow him “on the way” to Jerusalem (Mark 10:52).

The crowd’s dismissal. Mark tells us there is a “large crowd” (Mark 10:46), who “sternly ordered him to be quiet” (Mark 10:48).  Like the disciples who have not understood Jesus or his mission, the crowd is more annoyed by the presence of Bartimaeus than they see an opportunity to help, listen, learn, connect or befriend him. They seem to have not heard Jesus just say, ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45). The crowd would prefer Bartimaeus not to be there at all, to be docile and quiet, or to blend in to the shadows and become invisible so they can go about their business. We can be just as dismissive as this crowd to people in need or suffering from injustice in our own time.  It is much easier to be cruel and/or indifferent than it is to meet people in their struggles, acknowledge they exist, listen, learn from their experiences and do something to help.

  • Who do we overlook, ignore, or hope would just go away in our own time and context?

Persistence as faithfulness. From his position of powerlessness, Bartimaeus refuses to be ignored and silenced. Mark has him interrupt the journey to Jerusalem on purpose. This is the last scene before Jesus enters the holy city on the donkey to fulfill his Messianic vocation. Only blind, begging Bartimaeus ‘sees’ that this Jesus is “Son of David” (Mark 10:47, 48) – a clear link to Jesus’ Messianic role. He will call out to Jesus until mercy comes. Jesus (unlike the crowd or the disciples) reminds us the reader/hearer that mercy is what the kingdom is all about – bringing God’s amazing grace to the places that call out for it which includes outcast, blind, beggars – just like Bartimaeus. The time to call upon God’s grace — is now. The time find our voice –is now. The time for us to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8) — is now.

  • What keeps you from calling upon God’s mercy, and acting upon it for others?

Leaving our old life behind.  Bartimaeus left not only his blindness, but his old life behind to follow Jesus. He left his cloak – likely his only earthly possession – in order to participate in the Kingdom of God. He left everything he knew for the unknown. He left what was safe for uncertainty. He left fear for faith. He left limitation for possibility. He left silence for proclamation. He left worrying what others said or thought of him for doing what he believed to be right. He left his exclusion for community. He left being stuck for “the way.” (Early Christians called themselves ‘the Way.’)

  • What is holding you back from following Jesus? What might happen if you left it behind for a whole new life?

In Bartimaeus our blindness is revealed. In Bartimaeus we see courage, faith and hope in action. In Bartimaeus we catch a vision of the joy of following Jesus to the cross and the new life that awaits us all.

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Moving from Power, Privilege and Prestige to Service” Mark 10:35-45

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for the many.” (Mark 10:45)

Jesus told his disciples for the third time that he was on the way to Jerusalem to suffer and die (Mark 10:32-34). James and John reveal that they have no idea what Jesus is talking about by the conversation that ensues, because they are more focused on themselves and their status than what Jesus has promised he is about to do.

First, James and John demand Jesus do what they ask of him (Mark 10:35), treating Jesus as their subordinate.

Second, James and John ask for positions of power at his ‘right hand and left hand’ once Jesus ‘comes in to his glory’ (Mark 10:37). Even after all Jesus has done to heal the sick, cast out demons, forgive sinners, feed the hungry, love the poor, connect the outcast, rebuke the religious establishment, and teach about a different kind of kingdom of grace, mercy and peace; they still understood Jesus to be the one to overthrow their Roman occupiers, not as one who came to suffer and die at the hands of sinners for the sake of the world.

Third, James and John upset their fellow disciples for even making such a request of Jesus, clamoring for positions of privilege selfishly for themselves (Mark 10:41).

Jesus responds by telling them they have no idea what they are asking (Mark 10:40). While they are thinking of attaining power, privilege and prestige once Jesus establishes his authority; Jesus is preparing to drink the cup that is before him (see Mark 14:36); one that will lead to his death.

Jesus then reminds them (and us) what his mission is all about – selflessness humility and service.

In this upside-down age Jesus is bringing to bear; it will not be power, privilege and prestige that matter, but in how we live our lives for others. Power, privilege and prestige focus on what we can get from others whose purpose it is to give us what we seek and desire.

Jesus came not to be served but to serve. The way of Jesus is the way of service. Service offers our lives for the sake of others to make their lives better.

No one shows us how to serve selflessly with humility to live a life worth living for others better than Jesus does – and his greatest act for others is the cross.

Perhaps the ‘ransom’ Jesus offers by giving his life for the many (Mark 10:45) on the cross is not only salvation from sin and death, but also brings about our deliverance and liberation from only seeking to serve ourselves.  Jesus reminds us that a faith that lives in the here and now is focused on service to others – a truth we sometimes too easily forget as we long for the age to come.

What are some ways you could serve others; rather than looking on them to serve you?

What might this turn-around do within your relationships?

How could looking at the world for places you can serve – change you?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “The Richness of Grace” Mark 10:17-31

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘you lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (Mark 20:21-22)
 
In a capitalistic society like our own, one would expect disgust, dismissal or blatant laughing in Jesus’ face at his demand to sell everything and give it to the poor as a prerequisite to following him. It is easy to imagine this man shaking the dust of his designer suit, adjusting his fancy sunglasses, tie and slicked hair before chuckling to himself and getting back in his limousine to leave this loser behind. 
 
As fun as it is to imagine that scene unfolding, that is not the story Mark is telling. 
 
Mark tells us the man walks away “shocked and went away grieving for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).
 
This should tell us three things.
 
  1. This man actually wanted to follow Jesus. Why verbally spar with Jesus over the commandments if you weren’t serious about your faith life? His concern over living a righteous and abundant life (eternal life) – leaves one thinking that he was a true seeker. He was successful in life and now he was looking to live a meaningful one. There is a genuine, recognizable, endearing quality in this guy that moves us to like him, root for him and even see ourselves in him. We are him in many ways. On our best days, we want to make a positive difference in the world, but Jesus makes it harder (not easier) for us to do so by pointing out that our possessions and our wealth – hold us back from total devotion and humility. We are often too comfortable, and get in our own way of truly following Jesus with our whole heart, soul and mind. This interaction inspires reflection: What is holding you back from following Jesus?
  2. This conversation also reveals how enslaved by our consumerism we are. Would any of us actually give up “everything” to follow Jesus? We live in a culture that keeps us desiring the best things in the moment (even if we cannot afford them) and longing for more and more comfort and material goods. The disciples complain that they have “left everything” but still struggle. Perhaps there is some consolation in knowing we are in good company in wrestling with Jesus’ demands upon us while we try to make a living, provide for our families, share what we can and plan for the future as stewards of our finances. By inviting us to leave it behind and follow him, what kind if life is Jesus offering us to live?
  3. Salvation, discipleship and witness is impossible, but only if we seek to it for ourselves. The example Jesus gives of a camel passing through the eye of a needle reveals how outlandish a proposition it is to enter God’s kingdom on our own. But, Jesus insists, all things are possible for God (Mark 10:27). Ultimately this interaction with both the rich man and the disciples is a reminder of God’s undeserved mercy and grace. This invitation may come as shock and amazement to us, but Jesus offers it in love (Mark 10:21). Are you ready to trust in that love?
 
Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
PGS

Sunday is coming! “That terrible divorce text” Mark 10:2-16

“Because of your hardness of heart, he wrote this commandment for you.” (Mark 10:5)

Jesus comes across as a hardliner against divorce the first time one reads Mark 10:2-16. While the breakup of marriages is a painful reality for people both inside and outside the Christian community – it is worth a closer look to see what Jesus is up to in this conversation with the Pharisees. There is more going on underneath the surface than just divorce.

This conversation is about humanity’s “hardness of heart.”

The Pharisees come to Jesus with the question of divorce; not to get an answer – but to test him. Their hardness of heart will never accept who he is or what he has to offer, since they saw themselves as the authorities of both law and tradition. They reveal their hardness of heart by the callousness of their question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2). Women had very few (if any) rights in that culture, and if divorced, would be shamed, rejected with little to no prospects of survival. Divorce for a first century woman in Judea was a death sentence. The Pharisees were asking, “It is OK to just throw these worthless women away because it is legal, right?” Jesus exposes their hardness of heart in their question, not only in his response, but by the virtue that there are no women present or given voice in this encounter at all and Jesus advocates on their behalf.

The disciples also reveal their hardness of heart by shooing away the children when they approach Jesus. Even more vulnerable than women in that culture were children who were completely dependent on adults for survival. Infant and child mortality rates were high. Children were deemed worthless until they came of age and began contributing to the family. Children of divorced mothers were often rejected alongside the women, making them even more expendable.

So what does Jesus teach here?

Jesus acknowledges that divorce is a real part of the human experience, but we are not to be flippant or dismissive about it. We are to take our relationships – especially our families – very seriously. When families are broken-up (because of our hardness of hearts) creation itself mourns.

Jesus highlights partnership and equality by quoting Genesis 2:24. As we come to greater understandings of human sexuality and gender identity in both the life of the church and our wider society, Jesus’ exposes our hardness of heart by advocating the goodness of creation and worth of each person; especially those we so often overlook.

Jesus addressing the hardness of heart that leads to adultery. Unlike his contemporaries that only blamed women for adultery, Jesus extends the equality of our sinfulness to everyone. With that equality comes both the shared responsibility of our treasured relationships; the possibility for reconciliation; and the need for community when what was once “one flesh” is put asunder.

Jesus cares for the powerless by inviting the children to come to him. Just as women in the first century were extremely vulnerable (few if any rights, little opportunity); children were completely dependent. Jesus is highlighting his care and blessing for the least of these and inviting us to relate to people out of compassion, mercy, inclusion and love – not judgment, exclusion, shame and dismissal.

The way of Jesus is to go looking for the vulnerable and suffering; then value, embrace and bless them as Jesus does.

The church has a lousy track record when it comes to caring for people in the midst of family trauma, separations, break-ups and divorce. Too often the message has been judgment, shame and blame; not compassion, mercy, love and an embrace of blessing when we need it most.

We can do better.

An ongoing practice of faith is to repent of our own hardness of heart; trust in God’s forgiveness, and seek to see others as Jesus sees them.

Questions to keep wrestling with:

-How do we care for, support and include those who are preparing to enter into marriage?

-How do we care for, support and include those who celebrate their marriage?

-How do we care for, support and include those who struggle within their marriage?

-How do care for, support and include those who are in the process of separation or who have gone through divorce?

-How do we care for, support and include those who are, and will remain single?

-How do we care for, support and include people who are non-binary, LGBTQ+, and/or are still discovering who they are?

-How do we care for and support children who live in a variety of family arrangements – so that they can know the welcome and love of Jesus who blesses them, and a community that cherishes them?

PGS

(Thanks to my colleagues: Pastors Sarah Barnes, Dick Burgess, Daphne Burt, Scott Harris, Brett Hertzog-Betkoski and Mary Robinson for their insights prior to the composition of this post.)

Sunday is coming! “An Appalling Passage” Mark 9:38-50

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…” (Mark 9:42-43a)

Stated simply, these words of Jesus are appalling. They conjure up thoughts of medieval torture chambers, cruelty doled out today by warlords in places of political turmoil and/or imagined dystopian futures where totalitarian regimes oppress the people in a world gone haywire.

Cutting off flesh as tribute and a consequence for one’s wrongdoing as a painful (and shameful) reminder of transgression justifies our call for vengeance, punishment and dehumanization of wrongdoers when we feel hurt and betrayed. Even though we live in what we believe to be a more enlightened and sophisticated age than ancient times, we still believe in ‘an eye for an eye’ (or worse) retributive justice even though Jesus rejects that concept in favor of non-violent resistance, love and prayer (Matthew 5:38-48).

To understand what Jesus is talking about; more context helps.

Jesus is still holding the child introduced in Mark 9:37, while talking about not putting stumbling blocks in front of “little ones” in Mark 9:42-48. This passage is a continuation of Mark 9:30-37, where Jesus told his disciples he would be betrayed, suffer, die and be raised, that to be first means to be last and servant of all, and that to welcome a child, is to welcome Jesus and the one who sent him.

I don’t believe Jesus is literally prescribing self-mutilation or imposing brutality as  the consequences of our sin. He is however, raising the stakes for what it means to care for the most vulnerable among us – especially children.

Perhaps such vivid hyperbole can stir us out of complacency to all the suffering in the world around us. Jesus asks, “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 6:50)

Where are the most vulnerable near you? Can you see them?

You’ll find Jesus with the least of these. Don’t get in your own way as a stumbling block to welcome and care for them. Keep your saltiness and spice up the world around you.

And please, please, please take good care of your body, so you can serve well. 🙂

PGS

Sunday is Coming! “Living Upside-Down” Mark 9:30-37

“But they did not understand what (Jesus) was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (Mark 9:32)

Years ago I participated in a mission trip where the theme was “Upside-Down Kingdom.” The idea was that Jesus often flips our expectations and that he invites us to operate backwards than the way the world normally works reveals what is at stake for his mission and ministry. We lived out the “Upside-Down Kingdom” by sending teams of young people to help with projects and programs in the area that worked with the most under-served members of the local community. We were being church together alongside them.

Following Jesus is all about the divine love, grace and mercy we don’t deserve, but is often best expressed by living in an upside-down way with others.

Our culture pushes us to strive for personal success and glory, and greatness is often achieved at the expense of someone else (even unintentionally). Jesus invites us to live another way – looking to the least of these and valuing their humanity. “Success” in this “Upside -Down Kingdom” isn’t monuments or trophies, wealth or influence. It is connecting with the forgotten, treating other people…as people. This typically involves a leveling of status as new relationships are formed, community is shared as help and healing is mutually shared.

The world doesn’t work this way. Jesus does.

The disciples in this passage were arguing about which one of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34). After having been Transfigured before them (Mark 9:1-13); and casting out a demon from a boy (Mark 9:14-29); Jesus for a second time told his disciples that he would suffer, die and be raised (Mark 10:30-31). They did not understand who Jesus is and what he was doing (Mark 10:32). Do we?

We often don’t see what Jesus is up to in our lives, our families, our church, our community and our world. It often feels like we are losing ground in this dog eat dog, kill or be killed, winner take all competition we have made of human life. Yet, Jesus, gently picks up a child (Mark 9:37-39), the least and most vulnerable of them all. In doing so he shows us in an upside-down way that each one of us matters, and the more we spend our time and efforts caring for the least, we will see Jesus among us as God is restoring our humanity and the world in which we live.

Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Where is Jesus asking you to meet him in an “Upside-Down” world?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Who is Jesus?” Mark 8:27-38

“Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27b)

It may seem simple to ask: “Who is Jesus?” – but such a query can generate a multiplicity of responses.

One might answer by examining the symbol that framed his life and ministry – the cross; a tool of torture, fear, shame and execution by the Roman occupiers.

One might discuss Jesus based on the stories we know of his teaching and healing, found in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

One might contemplate the significance of his name, ‘Jesus’ (he will save); or his title ‘Christ’ (anointed one) means for an individual, a community, or the history of Israel.

One might frame twenty-centuries of reflection, creeds, statements, theology and practice by the expansion and ministry of the Christian Church in all its forms around the planet; or how a particular Christian tradition (i.e. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism) continues to express itself based on its understanding of Jesus in the context of its own history and culture.

One might ask how other religious traditions outside of Christianity (including modern secularism) view Jesus and his significance to human culture and development.

One might dig deeper into this question by asking questions about the historical context of his life and ministry in first century Roman Palestine, the Messianic longing among the populace at the time, the religious establishment throughout Judea as it related to the empire, how people back then heard and understood the prophets, and other historical topics of interest.

Each of these areas of study would prove useful for a fruitful examination of Jesus of Nazareth for either a group or an individual person. However, the only question that matters is the one that Jesus himself asks us to consider: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

His disciples gave a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets, the Messiah (Mark 8:28-29). Why they might have given those responses, and why it was important for Mark to include them in this story as it is recorded and passed along to us all these years later would also be of interest to investigate.

Yet the question Jesus aims directly at you – is the most valuable: “But who do you say that I am?

Keep seeking him, and share what you discover along the way.

PGS