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

Sunday is Coming! “Keeping Your Hands Dirty” Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked (Jesus), ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)

Then (Jesus) called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in that can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’” (Mark 7:14-15)

Jesus is not advocating that we don’t need to wash our hands, do the dishes or tidy up the spaces we are responsible for keeping clean (sorry kids). Our old saying ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ still seems like a worthy idea to pursue in an age where we have a greater understanding of microbiology and human health than people likely did in the first century.

Yet ‘uncleanliness’ is the wall Jesus breaks down in this encounter with the religious establishment.

Jesus confronts the religious leaders’ understanding of purity laws (that have more to do with projecting their disgust of certain people than about washing your hands and dishes). When we are physically dirty – we can be washed, restored and made whole again. When our very humanity is deemed ‘unclean’ by others – we can be vilified for simply being who we are or by the burdens we carry. This is what the religious establishment was doing in Jesus’ time.

Those who likely needed help the most were deemed ‘unclean’ and were to be avoided and/or shamed. (There are good parallels to how the religious establishment operates today in our own time and context.)

Jesus insists that what makes us ‘unclean’ is not who we are, the circumstances we face, or if we don’t wash or hands or not (BTW – please, wash your hands). What makes us truly ‘unclean’ is the way in which we treat one another, act selfishly and blame one another for our problems.

Jesus’ opponents justify their position based on tradition. Sometimes our call to purity is more harmful than good; even within our initially well-intended conventions. I find it personally empowering to remember that customs and time honored practices started for good reasons, usually to solve a current crisis at the time by making a decision to act and trying something to address it. Traditions are often the success stories of fruitful actions. What becomes a problem is when we lose ‘why’ we do what we do (or why we did it in the first place) and make it our purpose to preserve things the way we do what we do simply because it is what we have inherited. We often think it is our duty not to change anything – and equate change as failure; even when the circumstances dictate new strategies and actions.

When faced with traditions that no longer function the way they may have in the past (but did they?); could we consider it possible that our current set of circumstances, assets and understanding would lead us to meet the challenge differently now?

What do we let get in the way?

Jesus spent time with the outcast, the poor, the sinners, the sick, the possessed, the untouchables and all the people deemed ‘unclean’ by the wider community. In Mark 7 that will include gentiles as well. By his actions and his call to follow him, Jesus is revealing to us – if you are going to be part of the restorative kingdom – it is going to require you to get your hands dirty!

How willing are you to get your hands dirty in the kingdom with Jesus?

PGS

Sunday is coming! “Trusting an external Word” John 6:56-69

Lord to who can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Some of us may hear an echo in Peter’s question from our liturgical tradition that includes this verse in the “Alleluia” we sing as we stand to hear the Gospel proclaimed in worship. It is an amazing witness of longing and hope as we look not to ourselves but to Jesus for good news. The external Word brings life.

In the context of John 6 Peter’s question comes after an even more pertinent question to Jesus’ teaching as the Bread of Life: “This is difficult teaching, who can accept it?” (John 6:60). Indeed.

We have been taught in our culture the importance of self-reliance and self-preservation. In our quest for knowledge and discovery of our world we have tools like the scientific method that tests hypotheses and analyzes data for understanding. Both are powerful assets today as we plan for the future and work on the challenges set before us in our emotionally charged political climate more concerned about winning and and shaming opponents than facts or the common good.

What faith teaches us – and what Jesus has been pointing to throughout the Bread of Life series – is that answers (or even our deepest questions) cannot ultimately come from within; but from without (outside ourselves). Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one wotyour whole heart”* and 21st century life offers plenty of gods in which our hearts could cling to instead of the Triune God.

Which other gods vie for your attention?

Our witness (alongside Peter) calls us to confess – we don’t have all the answers, we might not be asking the right questions, but ultimately this cosmos in which we live is not about us at all. “Lord to who can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

Jesus feed us by your Word and fill us by your Bread of Life.

PGS

—-

“What does ‘to have a god’ mean, or what is God?

Answer: A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with all your heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these things belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism [1529],” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], 386).

Sunday is coming! “Approaching Jesus with our hunger and longing” John 6:35, 41-51

They began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” (John 6:41)

We are beggars, this is true.’

This statement is attributed to Martin Luther as his last words from his death bed. It should be noted this statement is not meant as a slight to those who are in need, but is rather a reminder that we are to approach Jesus as if we have nothing to bring other our than our longing for him. As people of faith we are not to rely on our own personal strength, understanding or efforts, but instead depend upon the grace, mercy and love of God who gives us life, sustenance, forgiveness and salvation.

In a world that is built and personal achievement and often defines people by what they do (or fail to do); it is good for us to approach God with our utmost humility as we bring our deepest needs and longings.

How can we come as ‘beggars’ to God – trusting we will be fed and nourished?

One way is prayer. Jesus assures us that our prayers will be heard (Matt 6:5-15; Matt 7:7-12; 1 John 5:14-15).

Another way to approach God with our need to be fed is in the heavenly meal of Jesus we know the Sacrament of the Altar, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, and the Lord’s Supper.

How can this be?

A small piece of bread and a tiny sip (or dip) of wine hardly seems like a significant way to fill our deepest longings, yet each time we come to receive the means of grace we receive a true treasure – Jesus, “the bread of life” (John 6:35).

One can debate whether or not John 6 is a direct link to this heavenly meal shared among us but the dynamics between the people in this passage asking, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Jospeh, whose mother and father we know?’” (John 6:42) seems somewhat similar to our own question “How can eating and drinking do such great things?” (Luther’s Small Catechism – see below).

The people in the crowd seem to be asking (just as we do), “Does God really meet us in ordinary things, like a man from a small town in Galilee, or simple thing like bread and wine?

The resounding answer Jesus gives is, “Yes, that is exactly where I meet you. Come, eat and be filled.”

Jesus meets us in ordinary things, with an extraordinary promise of the eternal at work among us. “I am the living bread from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).

As we will continue to see throughout John 6, this promise is (to use a bad pun) a tough word to swallow, yet all that is required of us is to come hungry, ‘beggars’ that we are, with outstretched hands and longing hearts to be fed by the Eternal One.

Come ‘beggar,’ come.

Eat, drink, and meet the Christ who will lead you to eternal life. And pray. Jesus will meet you there too.

-When has God met you in your deepest needs and hungers?

-What longings do you still have?

-Where could you meet others still longing to meet him?

PGS

From Luther’s Small Catechism:

“How can eating and drinking do such great things?

Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but the words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.’ These words, when accompanied by eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these words has what they declare and state, namely, ‘forgiveness of sin.’” (Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” [1529], Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 1166).

Sunday is Coming! “Go, Return, Re-group, and Keep on Serving” Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

 

 

 

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught.” (Mark 6:30)

The summer is mission trip season for many congregations. I love mission/service trips because not only do they help meet the real needs of others in on their turf, there is also great potential for faith-formation (for every age) by going out and serving people in context that just talking about it could never teach.

Jesus knew this important leadership lesson. He sent his disciples out into the community to preach, renounce evil and pray for healing in people’s lives (Mark 6:12-13). They did it, and had returned.

Jesus knew something else we commonly forget – they needed to process what they did, learned and experienced. So upon their return, they gathered together to share. Notice that they are now called ‘sent ones’ or ‘apostles’ upon gathering together.

In Mark 6:14-16, we are told that this ministry of Jesus had become known – even by King Herod. It seemed that once the word got out people sought Jesus out. This made it difficult for them to find time for privacy – or even time to eat (Mark 6:31). But Jesus went out to meet the crowd and its demands so these apostles could still reflect upon their experiences and rest.

We too often give up the opportunity to process our experiences because we think we are too busy – but that is where the real learning happens.

– Have you ever had some intentional reflection after a meaningful experience?

– What did you learn?

There are three other little lessons to glean from this story –

1. Jesus doesn’t send the crowd away – he has compassion on them and ministers to them.

– How could our churches meet needs in our community yet keep a focus so we don’t burn out or do many things poorly rather than a few things well?

2. Jesus saw “They were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). People want a leader. In the absence of one they find another.

– What other shepherds do you see at work in our communities/society/world (other than Jesus)?

– Are those other shepherds constructive or destructive? How can you tell?

– What does Jesus teach by his leadership?

3. Jesus preserves the apostles time to reflect and recover so they can get back out there to serve again. (The next story is the feeding of the 5000, followed by other healing stories – its teaching by sharing, reflecting and doing.) Too often we just think of ourselves as religious consumers and think about what we might “get out of it” by participating. But Jesus turns us around to keep asking, “Where can I serve?”

– Where might Jesus be calling you to serve in new ways?

PGS

Sunday is coming! Holy Trinity Sunday “John 3:16 and the Engaging Relational Mystery”

 

 

 

John 3:16 is a famous verse that is not specifically about the Holy Trinity but reveals much about who God is and what God is doing.

The words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” come to us not as a faith statement or creedal formula but in the midst of a specific conversation between Jesus and the inquisitive Nicodemus who came to ask his questions of Jesus in the night.

So what does John 3:16 say?

God loves the world.” God does not forsake or abandon the world. Neither does God look begrudgingly at the world nor gaze fondly upon the world from a distance. God loves the world (the self-giving, other-focused kind of love), and through that love God gets involved in our mess, our sinfulness, our brokenness and our judgment of one another. God (gave, bestowed, presented, committed, granted) the Son through that self-giving, relational love. To receive that love (through the Spirit) is like being born again (or starting a new life).

This passage is not so much a definition of God as the Holy Trinity, but in it we can see the wholeness of God at work in the Father’s love given for us, the gift of Jesus made alive in us and a new life in the Spirit lived through us.

What this passage also reveals to us is Jesus’ willingness to meet us where we are and shine; even as we come with questions under the cover of darkness.

Could it be that the Holy Trinity is not so much an intellectual formula to comprehend as it is way to see God as an engaging relational mystery who is loving, approachable and life-giving?

How might we locate ourselves in that love?

What might it mean that Jesus came: “Not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him?

What might it mean to believe?

PGS

Sunday is Coming! Day of Pentecost. “Meeting Your Calling”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When the day of Pentecost had come…” (Acts 2:1)


Pentecost has the potential to be the most interesting and empowering festival of the church year. We celebrate the Spirit being unleashed: like a mighty wind shaking things up; like fire set upon on our heads; like opening up closed doors to the world outside; because fear no longer holds power over us. Pentecost is a calling to take the message of Jesus to the streets.

When the Spirit comes, said the prophet Joel (and Peter preaching), your sons and daughters will prophesy; the young will see visions; the old will dream dreams; men, women, slaves, free – anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:17-21 [my paraphrase]).

-What do you dream about for your community of faith?

-Does your church (or the church as a whole) have a vision for its purpose other than institutional survival? Worship Attendance? Buildings? Programs? Staff? Dollars? Busyness?

-What if what we we were actually called to do as Jesus people was to love the way he loved so we could make a lasting impact in people’s lives – and turned them loose to share that love too?

-What if we took action (and made plans for action) – not just to keep the ship in the water but set sail for new horizons?

-Would we go?

-How many of our churches just sit in the dry dock?

Pentecost can be a time, not just to hear the story – but to enter it anew. It can be a moment to wait and pray for the Spirit to shake things up in our lives and community, to set our hearts on fire with the passion of Jesus, and send us out beyond the safety of closed doors.

I have a quote on my office door from Frederick Buechner that reads, “The place God calls you is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (from his book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993], 119.)

-What is your deep gladness?

-Where might that deep gladness meet those around you?

-What is keeping you from that calling?

-What doors do you keep locked in front of you?

-Why are you afraid of trying?

Pray with me:

Come, Holy Spirit come!

PGS

Sunday is coming! Ascension /Easter 7B “Far from abandoned”

 

 

 

 

 

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” (John 17:11a)

If one follows the church year, the Thursday before Easter 7 marks the Ascension (Luke 24:44-53), as the risen Jesus leaves his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Presumably, we are left in our own to wait without Jesus or the Spirit until Pentecost (next Sunday). Yikes!

This Sunday (Easter 7B) we read these words of Jesus offered as a prayer for those same disciples. The scene is the upper room after he has washed their feet but before Jesus is betrayed and arrested, before his trial and execution, before the glory of Easter and before the forty days he revealed himself again and again in the flesh.

While these words come to us out of sequence in the timeline after Easter, they help us remember what Jesus was revealing to his followers all along. He is the “word made flesh among us” (John 1:14). This is not just a promise for his earthly life, but the gift of hi presence among us always. The incarnation extends beyond our physical contact in the flesh. Jesus is with us wherever we are and through our witness is revealed to others.

At the Ascension, we might ask, “Where did Jesus go?” “Are we left alone?”  “Is God far away?” “Am I Forgotten?”

Jesus told us last week (Easter 6B) to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). These ten days between his Ascension and the day of Pentecost are NOT about Jesus leaving us behind by an absentee savior, but about our renewal to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those around us. This is our moment to reflect, wonder  and invite others into our ongoing connection to the eternal word who continues to live among us as we abide in him; his love; his grace and truth. This is our time to join his calling to make all things new among us and through us, remembering that the Spirit will indeed come to empower us.

Just as Mary was the first God-bearer (theotokos); we too are to bear Christ to those around us wherever we are.

When the Spirit comes at Pentecost to get us moving …look out!

How is Jesus calling you to bear Christ today?

PGS