Mark 7

The last time we saw the disciples, Jesus had sent them out two by two and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Now back with Jesus, they report all that they had done and taught, and he said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” So many were coming and going, they had no leisure even to eat. So, they got in a boat and headed for a deserted place, but it was quicker on foot, and the crowd beat them to this once deserted spot. As Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. And it grew late.

Jesus must have been in the flow and lost track of time, because his disciples came announcing the obvious, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late. Send the people away so that they can go into the villages and buy something to eat.” 

But Jesus – whose ways are not our ways nor thoughts our thoughts – said, “No, you give them something to eat.” 

I think the disciples must have made a lot of sideways glances in their career, checking to see if any of them had a glint of understanding. Mike Miles offers a disciples’ kind of quote from Ken Keesy: “Since we don’t know where we’re going, we have to stick together in case someone gets there.”

However, lacking this glint of insight, the fellas ask if they should make a run to the IGA and buy two hundred denarii worth of pita. Jesus said, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” They came back saying, “Five, and two fish,” no doubt thinking this would put an end to the matter.

But it didn’t, and we know the rest of the story: Jesus blessed and broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And when everyone had eaten their fill, there were twelve baskets of leftovers – both bread and fish – and those who had eaten numbered five thousand men. Lukes adds, “not counting women and children”, but we won’t quibble about women not counting (this time). We get the point. It was a sign and a wonder, followed immediately by another one. After getting their fill of Wonder Bread, Jesus sent the people away and sent the disciples back over the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida in Gentile territory. But Jesus misses the boat praying, a storm comes up, and everyone is afraid for their lives until Jesus catches up to them, walking over the water. They are perhaps more terrified at this, “utterly astounded”, we are told, “for they did not understand about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened.” They finally came ashore at Genessaret, which means they were blown from the northeast shore of Lake Galilee back across the sea to land 3 miles south of where they started out. All in all, a trying day.

When they finally disembarked, people “at once recognized Jesus, and chased about that whole region bringing their sick to wherever they heard he was teaching. Wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”

“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,” (that is an 85 mile journey to the north, by the way – I don’t really picture scribes and Pharisees going that far), but anyway, apparently they did, and “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;  and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’  He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;  in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”  You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ 

Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!  For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.”  But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban.”‘ (that is a practice of willing assets to the Temple making them unavailable to be used for elderly parents’ care, but rather encourages circumventing the moral and legal imperative to honor mother and father)  “‘thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’ 

Then he 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 can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’  

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable.  He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)  And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'”

Our reading ends here, except that the next bit is important, and we’ll miss it if I don’t add it now.

From there they set out and went to the northern Gentile region of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. That’s a 40 mile hike through rough terrain, climbing and dropping 4000 feet in elevation a number of times on their way to the coast.  In Tyre, Jesus was spotted by a Syrophoenician woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit. This is a great story but I’m not going to tell now because I’m focusing on the travelogue. From Tyre, Jesus and his merry men went another 20 miles north to Sidon, and then in an eastern arch back towards the Sea of Galilee, ending on the southeast side of the lake in the region of the Decapolis – all in Gentile territory. 

Of course, Jesus heals along the way, he feeds 4000, then turns around again and goes back 50 miles north to Caesarea Philippi. There is no explanation for all of this hiking activity away from Galilee. Perhaps it’s to shake off the crowds. Perhaps Jesus wanted to see a bit of the world away from home, to see how the other side lived. Perhaps it was to stay out of reach of his opponents in Jerusalem while he teaches the disciples all that they need to know. (That teaching maybe took more time than he had scheduled?)  And, this is a three year story told without any time markers, so, perhaps it took over a long time, slowly walking, lots of visiting along the way.

We can’t know any of that, of course. What we do know is that Mark’s travelogue is unique among the gospels and shows us that Jesus was not limiting God’s activity to the chosen people. In fact, he was always expanding the territory, widening the reach. Not only to the unclean, ignorant, and disgraceful among his own people, but to those ‘dogs’ – the derogatory name for Samaritans and Phoenicians.

So we know there is wideness in God’s mercy, amazing grace, peace to soothe our bitter woes, love divine, all other love’s excelling. 

And we know that people in this gospel are real people – not stylized people like in the gospel of John – but true to the human condition. There are those who trust and those who doubt and those who oppose  – all of which is evidence of the condition of their hearts. And that is Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees and scribes. They have hardened their hearts because Jesus doesn’t meet their expectation and doesn’t fit within the framework of their tradition.

But, how are we supposed to tell the difference between religion and human tradition? I mean, we know that Fastelavns isn’t a means of salvation, but it is, in its own way, a means of grace. Intergenerational, playful, open to anyone who finds their way in on a cold dark night in February. The Lutheran Church is full of traditions – what to say in performing a baptism, what baptism does, who is allowed communion, how Christ is present in the sacraments, the purpose of ordained leadership for the sake of right order, the shape of liturgy, being a creedal church – stating belief in the creeds as an orthodox standard of faith. There are more – hymns to sing on festival days, how acolytes are to approach the altar, when to switch from regular to decaffeinated coffee.

This particular congregation intentionally blurs the lines of many official traditions if they seem to limit access to, or estrange people from, a relationship with God. Traditions are human precepts, humanly devised standards that do keep a certain order, allow a certain standardization of what one can expect to take place or be spoken and performed here. But are any of them standing in the way of, or in the place of Jesus?

Are our personal, social heritage and traditions – like quietude, passivity, Danish tribalism preventing God’s word to open fully in your heart or the heart of others? Does my progressive, often imaginative interpretation of scripture characterize God in ways that invite or limit faith to grow?

These are among the things Jesus was talking about, they just didn’t make his list along with infidelity, greed, debauchery, corruption, hubris, materialism, irresponsibility and cuckoldry. I’m a word nerd – I looked up synonyms for his list.

Jesus’ list is itself a word nerd expansion of the 10 commandments – you shall not kill, steal, lie, covet, slander – these are bad because they are hard on your neighbor and do not demonstrate the love of God.

I occasionally go to continuing ed. or synod sponsored events. Every registration form these days lists about 8 dietary categories to choose from – vegan, vegetarian; gluten, soy, dairy free; allergy to nuts or shellfish; Keto; omnivore. We are very particular about what we put into our bodies. A modern, individualistic form of the purity code. Jesus says God is fine with all of it because it will all end in the sewer.

Are we as particular with what we put into our minds? Video games, books, music, movies, 24 hr news – do these things feed you, nourish a sense of well being or wonder, fill you with a peaceful kindliness toward others? Do they expand your horizons of tolerance and justice and courage? Are they worthy of your mind? In biblical terms, they don’t end in the sewer, but in your heart and in your behavior and in your soul.

It can seem as though we live in a heartless society. Cruelty makes the news daily, courage only occasionally. Perhaps we seem heartless in order to protect our hearts, to keep them from bleeding out at all the grief and horror we witness. Maybe it feels safest to keep your heart closed, if not hardened – but that leads to hardened arteries with plaques of anger, fear, prejudice that can let go at any time and block your heart altogether, or damage the functioning of your whole body in one stroke.

Maybe on those long walks in rough terrain, Jesus was teaching his disciples there is no reason to be afraid of the unholiness of others, of unsavory or dangerous elements of creation, of places, people and situations that may appear godforsaken.

The world Jesus invites us to see has no quarantines, no refugee camps, no decontamination chambers. So he eats with tax collectors and sinners, he touches lepers and bleeders, he handles the bodies of dead and diseased, he preaches to pig farmers, Gentiles and heathens. In the story of the Syrophoenician mother, Jesus is surprised by her insightful conversation. If Jesus continued to learn from ‘others’, then so may we. The world is wide when we consider everyone worthwhile. And so our sentence to repeat 5 times a day this week is this:

Open heart, open mind – let the good and God enter the world through me.

Mark 6

“Jesus left [Capernum] and came to his hometown [of Nazareth], and his disciples followed him.  On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!  Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching.  He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.  He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;  but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.  He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.  If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.  They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”  But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”

There’s a lot going on here. One of the themes that occurs to me in this passage is the importance – and the effects – of recognition. Three connected episodes make up today’s reading, and they each hinge on people’s recognition of Jesus.

In the first vignette, Jesus comes home. We might expect that he will be welcomed as a local hero, praised for putting Nazareth on the map – destination tourism! He’s a popular healer, a charismatic preacher – even a prophet – and now he’s coming home! It could be that they’d run out to greet him with rings for his fingers and bells for his toes – that a fatted calf would be killed for a feast in his honor! 

While it is true that his reputation proceeds him, the hometown folks are not impressed – or at least not favorably impressed. They know him, he grew up with their kids. They probably bought a lampstand from Joseph & Sons Carpentry Shop.

“This is Jesus, for heaven’s sake” – they say – “and here is his mom and brothers and sisters – we know them! What the dickens is going on? How can he say these things? (How can he do these things?)     Well… we don’t know, but we don’t like it!” 

And they don’t believe what they see; instead, they take offense.

Jesus can’t do anything among them because, in their certainty about who he is, they have closed their minds, hardened their hearts, shut their eyes to the work of God in him. This is a familiar theme in Mark – those with eyes who do not see, those with ears yet cannot hear… it’s the soil that’s been trampled down so hard seed can’t take root.

We might recognize a degree of truth in this scenario. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” while “absence makes the heart grow fonder”… the expert is always an hour’s drive away from home; and your spouse’s silly opinion suddenly makes a lot of sense when someone else says it!  

The people of Nazareth knew Jesus, so they were’t able to recognize him.  

Are we like that? Are we stuck in attitudes or assumptions about people of certain generations or economic class or race or religion or some other pigeon hole?  I’ll just say yes, we are.

We, too, know people and therefore don’t allow them to change. Have you never said, “Yeah, well, that’s Murgatroyd for you, she’s always been like that.”   Don’t we hold others to beliefs or statements they once made as though there could be no learning or growth, no insight? I’ll hazard a guess that, yes, we do that, too. Especially if they are a public figure like a politician… or a young woman who had a rough start…  or a son of the community who comes home to teach in the synagogue and heal. Change seems threatening on some deep level even when we’re not necessarily aware.

Do we allow – or expect – ourselves to change? It seems like a no brainer, but, don’t we say some version of, “That’s just who I am!” as if our character or personality is unalterable, immutable, eternal?  Are you who you were 30 years ago? Would you claim that person now that you are older and wiser?  The goal of the gospel is to change us, teach us, transform us into siblings of Christ – bringers of God’s love into the world, to help us recognize God even if we think we know better.

In Mark, Jesus becomes who he is in his baptism. He wasn’t breathing flight into clay birds as a child as in the gospel of Thomas, or astounding rabbis with his wisdom and understanding of scripture as a teenager. In this gospel, God speaks to him in his baptism, saying, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” And only after John is arrested does Jesus begin being who we expect him to be. So maybe Nazareth isn’t uniquely hard of heart or blind to the workings of God. Maybe we are wired to fear change if we’re comfortable where we are.

What’s interesting about this reading is that closed minds have the ability to limit the work of God. That’s a lot of power residing in the negative.  “Jesus could do no deed of power there,” Mark tells us, “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their lack of belief.” He could still cure them even though they didn’t believe, but his power was thwarted by their certainty that they knew all there was to know about this son of Mary.  

It has been somewhat of a comfort to me that God has power to use us and heal us despite our blond moments. (Come on, you’ve had them! ) Everyone is blond now and then – it’s not quite blind, just slow to catch on.

The next part of the reading finds Jesus out in the countryside and villages teaching. He calls the twelve disciples and sends them out, two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits. He tells them to take no provisions but rather to look for hospitality and welcome as they go – signs of life, receptive soil to the word of God. 

“So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them.” Wow.

The disciples did not have this ability before. They were ordinary people. They aren’t known for their healing powers – actually, they aren’t even known for their faith… or for seeing what Jesus is all about even as he is being with them…. So this is perhaps their shining hour in the whole gospel. Maybe Mark paired these events to show us that it wasn’t Jesus’ problem in Nazareth. It wasn’t his failure. He wasn’t having an off day that limited the power of God, but rather it was the people’s inability to see and respond to him that tied his hands. 

But Jesus is able to infuse his mostly bumbling disciples with healing capacity and power over demons, to fill them with God’s spirit even as they take to the highways. They were able to do signs and wonders because they were open to being used for God’s activity. They echo Mary’s response – “let it be with me according to your will.” Those open to the message become tools for God’s kingdom. And through them (through you), others are able to recognize godly action, to experience God’s healing.

And so we come to Herod. Herod was the King. He was a Jewish king, supposedly bound by Jewish law. But as a person of royal authority, he was confident in the power of his will, in the power of the sword and prison and political positioning. And, as is often true of kings, Herod thought himself to be above the law.

StarBelly Dance director Cecilia Rinn

He imprisoned John the Baptist for being outspoken – proclaiming the lack of moral legitimacy of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodius. John was imprisoned for raising a public outcry and for holding power accountable to the moral laws of the day. 

Herodius is the Cruella de Vil of the gospels. She’s heartless, without conscience, and waiting for her chance.  If you watched the halftime dancing at the Super Bowl, maybe you can feel for Herod in his weakness, in his frenzied pleasure and outlandish promise while in close proximity to flipping bangles on whirling hips and spinning sequins and waves of perfumed hair. 

But Herod gets caught – and suddenly sober. He is squeezed between the respect and fear he feels for John and the conniving nature of his wife;  between his moral integrity – and his fear of losing face if he backs out of his impetuous boast. Perhaps he wasn’t in the best condition to use his cortical, rational brain at that time of the night. Pushed to a precipitous edge, he could think of no better alternative. He could think of no clever way to keep John captive as an intriguing pet holy man, and still live with Herodius. She used Herod’s weakness for evil ends and forced him to order the beheading of John. At stake was Herod’s royal dignity and manliness before his peers. That’s a bad place for a king to be. Herod orders the head of the baptist to brought to his step-daughter on a plate.

Well, what would you do? We’d like to think that we’re better than that, obviously. But, what would you do under pressure –  admit you were wrong, put ourself through all of the fallout – or just do it and get it over with and hope you can move on?       

Let’s take a less sexy example.

Mitt Romney was the only senator to vote against the party line in the recent Impeachment trial. He said his faith compelled him to vote his conscience. It was a brave statement. True, it had less danger of payback for him than for many. Mitt has credibility, institutional history, and he is not up for re-election for another 4 years. As singular as it was, his career is relatively safe. How many other Republicans – or Democrats – would have voted differently if they had the moral courage to be honest/impartial jurors in spite of what that vote might mean to their re-election plans. Like Herod, they caved in under pressure, taking the easier immediate option of conformity to power rather than the higher-minded risk of their conscience. What would you have done?

Meanwhile, Jesus’ name and activities have made a splash. People are talking. Jesus reminds them of Elijah or Moses or one the prophets of old. Jesus reminds Herod of John whom he has just killed. Actually, what Herod recognizes are signs of the kingdom, the work of God in John and Jesus. In them, Herod catches a glimpse of real power. His power is control over – theirs is power through, power from some deeper source – and the difference scares him.

If we’re honest, I’d say the power of God scares us, too – right? It should. Trusting that God has real power in – over – through our lives is frightening, unsettling. It’s easier to be skeptical and hopeful and carry on with the ways of the world. That is a much more reasonable approach. 

Because, what does it mean for us if we open ourselves to be an instrument of God’s peace? 

What would it mean to for us to see actual people wearing the image of God, instead of seeing people in general? I probably mean the ones you don’t like very much, don’t respect.

What would it mean for us to see God in all things, to see all things part of God? To take seriously, intentionally, Greta Thunberg’s call to change for the sake of the future? Have you tried a plastic fast for Lent? No purchase of things wrapped or packaged in plastic – it’s difficult. I have tried. We aren’t extravagant people, but we all have our blindsides. There are always things we can’t see, can’t recognize as God’s, and of God’s concern.

The hope I finally take away from the good news of God in Christ, is that it is God’s grace, not my ability to believe, that finally holds me. It is God’s grace – not your will, not your belief, not your openness to God’s will – because, as God knows and Mark keeps showing us, we are all flawed and broken and blind to the things that really matter. We catch a glimpse here and there. We see things that are ‘kinda like’ the kingdom of God that remind us of the love of an almighty God, things that compel us, convict us, and inspire us to clearer vision and broader horizons. It might not sound much like good news, but on days when I feel like a muddled failure and not a pillar of spiritual fervor, I’m really grateful that scripture is full of muddled characters… even the good ones don’t get it, and they – like us –  rely body and soul on the grace of a loving, merciful, powerful God.

And they – like us – are not disappointed. 

Maybe we should practice 5 times a day, “Let it be with me according to your will.”

Mark 5

This week I wrote out the gospel using the Greek word order. I usually read from my Greek translation book when preparing a sermon because it helps me pick up little things in the language that I miss in a regular English translation. Mark, especially, is better this way because Greek past tense is written with present sense giving it a kind of breathless urgency.  You’ll notice all the phrases that begin with the verb form, “having come, having spent, having noticed…” It’s also just fun, because I get to sound like Yoda.

We begin today where we left off last week. Jesus and his friends were on the Gentile side of Lake Galilee and were invited to immediately row back home after freeing a man from a legion of demons at the expense of a herd of pigs.

“And Jesus, having crossed over again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.  Then one of the leaders of the synagogue came, Jairus by name, and, having seen him, he fell down at the feet of Jesus and begged him earnestly saying, “My daughter is at the point of death. Come and put your hand on her that she may be healed and may live.” And he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and were pressing in on him. 

And there was a woman, being with a flow of blood twelve years and having suffered much by many physicians, and having spent everything and having benefitted nothing, but rather into a worse condition having come, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd behind, she touched the garment of him.   For she was saying, “If I may touch even the garments of him, I will be healed.” And immediately was dried up the fountain of the blood of her; and she knew in her body that she has been cured from the terrible affliction.

And immediately Jesus, having known within himself, from him power had gone out, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And the disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing against you; and you say, “Who touched me?’ ” But he looked around to see the one having done this. 

Now the woman was fearing and trembling and fell down before him and said to him the whole truth.    And he said to her, “Daughter, the faith of you has healed you; go in peace, and be healed from the affliction of you.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not be afraid, only believe.” 

And he did not permit anyone to follow after him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the synagogue leader, he saw an uproar, and weeping and loud wailing. And having entered, he said to them, “Why are you distressed and weeping? The child did not die but is sleeping.” And they laughed at him. 

But he, having put them all outside, took the father of the child and the mother and those with him, and went in where the child was. And having taken the hand of the child, said to her, “Talitha kum,” which means, “Little girl, to you I say arise!” And immediately arose the little girl and she was walking around for she was twelve years old.  And they were amazed with great amazement. And he gave orders to them earnestly that no one should know this, and he said to give her something to eat.”

There are a few observations to make right away. “And having taken the hand of the child, Jesus said “Little girl, to you I say arise!” And immediately arose the little girl and she was walking around for she was twelve years old.” And he told them to give her something to eat. 

Jesus has done this before. Back in chapter 1, Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever and Jesus took her by the hand and immediately she arose and began to make them something to eat. The word for “arise” is the resurrection word. We are now halfway through the gospel, and Mark wants us to hear it again, to prime the pump for when God, taking Jesus by the hand, will say, “My son, to you I say arise!” We don’t see that part – especially in Mark. But in Luke and John’s gospel, Jesus does then walk around and gets something to eat. This healing is told now as a prefiguring, a happy warning of what is to come. God can heal every disease, can bring a little girl back from the fresh edge of death, God’s power can prevail over death.

Another thing particular to Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ geographical movement. It is different than in the other gospels. Jesus is continually on the move, and often in a boat going over to the Gentile side and then back across to Galilee. That is significant, Jesus’ intentional crossing over to the other side, and is a major theme of today’s story.

I watched some of the recent impeachment hearings and happened to be listening in the car Friday night during the role call of votes on the articles and amendments. Whichever side you were on, it was predictable. With two exceptions, every senator voted along party lines. It is a sad testimony to the power of ‘sides’, and the consequences and risks of crossing over to the other side. Belief in the material presented by the House, whether or not it is an impeachable act didn’t matter – it was all predetermined by numbers of the two sides. Personal integrity or convictions seemingly had little to do with it; crossing over was too risky.

We fall victim to the same dynamics, the same fear of the ‘other‘ part of the ‘other side’. Almost everyone can identify with the borders beyond which we don’t go. Poverty, race, wealth, religion, privilege, gender, politics – the list could go on. We are tribal by nature and find groupings of ‘our own kind’ within which we associate. We grow accustomed to seeing the boundaries of those other groupings as impermeable. In our minds we assign a hierarchy – those above us, where we would not be welcome or feel that we fit in, and those groups beneath us. 

The geographical travelogue in Mark highlights Jesus’ (and therefore God’s) desire to transgress those boundaries, for the boundaries to disappear, for the other to be welcomed or understood, for radical inclusion, “courageous compassion” as Alan Storey, a South African pastor, tells it.

Jesus and his band of brothers has crossed over to ‘their’ side the lake again, landing back in Capernaum.  Like mosquitoes that mysteriously know the moment you step out of the house, the crowd swarms around Jesus as he sets foot on the shore. But we can imagine them parting, making space at the hurried approach of a highly respected leader of the synagog. Jairus represents all that is holy and proper and connected and clean according to their Jewish codes and standards. He resides at the opposite end of the pole of social desirability and power from the man Jesus just cleansed from a horde of demons. Yet Jairus’ response is the same as the wild man’s – as soon as he sees Jesus, he runs and falls at his feet and begs Jesus earnestly to heal his daughter. Jesus agrees.

But this story comparing and contrasting two men is suddenly interrupted.

The crowd quickly coalesced around Jesus, jostling him as they make their way to Jairus’ daughter. But unseen, in the midst of the commotion, a woman touches his cloak. Just that – a little tug on Superman’s cape – and he stops and turns around. He knows. And he doesn’t know. In the moment she felt the fabric, she knew within her body, and was, no doubt, pondering this, letting the crowd pass by, when he turned. Now she was terrified. She had no business being there. She could be called out, beaten or worse without being able to explain. Death, blood, and disease make a person unclean and contamination spreads by touch, fouling those who are clean. Purity was fragile, a difficult state to maintain, and the protective codes of behavior and exclusion were well and widely known. She should not have been there. Jesus looks intently at the crowd.

It’s interesting to consider what Jesus didn’t know. He knew power left him, but didn’t know at whose touch, or what that stolen power had accomplished.  We see healings of many varieties in Mark’s gospel, but I can’t think of another one that Jesus did unknowingly.

Jairus mets Jesus face-to-face: the woman creeps up from behind through the crowd and takes for herself what she can’t ask for face-to-face.  Jairus is a somebody: for twelve years, she has been a nobody. He is someone who walks the streets of Jerusalem head up, nodding to those of his class, admired from those below: she is invisible, has been forced away even from family. He has power and physical presence: she is anemic, isolated, weakened, but not powerless. She ventured out because she was dying in secret. She has been untouched and untouchable for 12 years: Jairus has spent those same 12 years in a household with servants and cooks, enjoying the companionable love of his wife and daughter. These two people share nothing in common. They are on different sides of community life.

But, this day is different. This day, in their need, both are vulnerable, both are drawn to Jesus, compelled to him. Suffering levels the playing field. Desperation undercuts social standing and self-respect and leaves one a beggar at Mercy’s lap.

The direction of these paired stories, then, has to do with the power of Jesus to overcome all that divides us from God, whether it’s in the realm of religion or daily life. This can be a challenge for the Christian religion itself or for any religion. One of the commentaries I read said, “the point, from the beginning, was never that Judaism was bad and Christianity good. The point was and is that religion itself is good only so long as it is an open avenue of approach to God. It becomes counterproductive or even evil when it imposes itself instead as a barrier to keep certain people—often those with less social power—away from God.”

It took courage for Jairus to leave the security of his position and practiced religion and fall at the feet of a scruffy, itinerant teacher. Jesus had touched an unclean woman and so was himself ritually defiled. I wonder if Jairus even thought of that. I imagine him over the edge of grief and fear for his daughter and coming to Jesus for the only help he could think of – “Come heal my daughter! Lay your hand on her that she might live..” And then Jesus allowed himself to be held up by a sickly woman who had simply touched his clothing! No, don’t stop! My daughter, come on, quickly!

But Jesus did stop. He brought this woman back to life, back to personhood, publicly calling her “daughter,” listening to her tell her whole truth.    She was already healed from her affliction. It happened before Jesus knew what had happened. But that wasn’t the healing she most needed. She broke the law of segregation and purity by entering the crowd, by coming out, by being public. Her healing was to face down the lie that she was worthless. When someone notices you, pays attention to you, claims you as family, something heals deep down inside of you.

Jairus is waiting – somehow, in some state, we aren’t told. But in needing to wait for Jesus, he had to face down the lie that he was privileged, entitled, superior to this woman. Alan Storey says that is the miracle for Jairus… that he continued to wait and trust. He had those minutes to realize that purity codes will not keep you safe or guarantee health. That is a lesson for us, too. We have purity codes like immigration, class, color, and they can’t keep us safe. In wanting Jesus to lay his hand on his precious daughter – hands defiled by the healing of one from the other side, hands defiled by his daughter’s death, Jairus, too was healed of his narrow view of God’s love.

The gift of restoring a person’s relationship is not inferior to that of restoring life itself. For Mark, the two are parallel miracles. The scope of his inclusion is worth thinking about.  If we are tempted, on the one hand, to “use” God’s word in order to safeguard the privileges of one group or another—whites, males, heterosexuals, Christians—we are moving in exactly the opposite direction from Jesus. If, on the other hand, we are tempted to ignore the gospel’s capacity for spiritual renewal and transformation and treat God’s word, instead, as a collection of stories or examples of goodness, then we deprive the good news of much of its power, and deprive ourselves of an openness to change and healing. 

Faith will not necessarily make you healthy, but faith may make you well. Trusting God’s grace and loving ways may restore health, it may restore families, it may lead to death – but through faith can come wholeness and peace. To be very honest, I don’t know quite what to make of healing stories and miraculous resuscitations. On one side, I am sadly skeptical, and on the other I simply believe it. But I have no doubt in God’s power to transform and reconcile and bring relationships and people into wholeness. And I have no doubt that it is our common vocation – a mutual ministry of reconciliation, care, kindness, courageous compassion, transcendence. 

And in that, I believe there is hope and the healing of many ills.

Mark 4

“Again Jesus began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.  He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 

“Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil.  And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.  Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;  in order that, [as the prophet wrote,]  “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ” 

And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 

The sower sows the word.  These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.  And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy.  But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.  And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word,  but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” 

He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” 

And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” 

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;  yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

The opening line of Mark’s gospel says it about as directly as it can: this is the “good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” But when the narrative turns to introduce Jesus and his ministry, we see that the story and its implications aren’t so simple. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth announce that God’s kingdom has now drawn near. He calls his followers (and us) to turn our lives around, to always be re-orienting, re-booting, reconsidering our assumptions and allegiances; to deny the power of Evil and Empire; to live trusting in the nearness and presence of divine love as power. And Jesus teaches this new life through glimpses and anecdotes; in riddles and parables; always obliquely…at a slant. The kingdom of God is like…

I’ve read that there are 83 sayings and parables beginning with some version of, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” recorded in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. We might get the idea then that the kingdom of God is of some importance for us to understand. And that Jesus is not just giving information about a future hope or an imagined place.  Parables aren’t chit-chat. Through them, Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God – and perhaps more importantly – into a new understanding and relationship with each other and with the earthly world…because the kingdom of heaven isn’t like a puffy cloud with those rays beaming down through the openings, or the depth of the stars at midnight, or angels and cherubim…

The kingdom of heaven is like…new wine; it’s like a woman who – losing a coin, sweeps out her entire house until she finds it and then rejoices with her friends – or a shepherd who leaves his flock to go in search of one lost lamb – or a man who has two sons – or a man who opens the door at midnight because his friend won’t stop knocking – or a lamp placed on a lampstand and not under a bushel – or a fig tree producing its fruit in due season – or treasure found buried in a field – or a pearl of great price for which everything else will be gladly sold – or beautiful lilies of the field, or a rich fool, or those wise and silly bridesmaids, or a king going to war, or a builder calculating the costs, or the fate of a house built on sand versus one built on stone, or yeast added to bread dough, or a great wedding feast where all the outsiders are brought in because the invited guests came up with excuses, or good seed scattered equally on good soil and rocks and the path, seed that grows in secret, no one knows quite how – or where it will come up – or when the harvest will come – or how much it will yield – or how much of the field will be taken over by wild mustard – whose seed is so tiny it can hardly be perceived yet grows into shrubs giving rest to the birds. The kingdom of heaven is like that …. something we know, but not quite.

If, after all of these descriptors, you still can’t quite get the kingdom of heaven into focus… that is as it should be. 

Mark doesn’t record all of those parables, but he does give us the reason Jesus tells them – so that those who hear will not understand, and those who see will not perceive.

Okay.

That makes me feel a little bit better for not having a clue about the one that tells us to “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

This is Jesus? I would welcome your insight.

But whatever it means, the confusion about parables told so we don’t understand is not God being mean, (I don’t think) or highly selective, or judging those without understanding who make fools of themselves. I think it’s because, in Mark’s gospel, the inability to get a handle on the kingdom of heaven is part of the good news.

In our lives – and for the sake of the world – our inability to understand the kingdom of God is an essential feature of the good news.

Why? Because it means the kingdom of God, the way and will of God, the reign and rule, expectation and expression, home and heart of God is a mystery… it is here and nowhere, in and of the world and beyond the world, present in you and your neighbor, yet unseen, illogical, undiscoverable, incomplete, still becoming.      Always now and yet to be.

Why the secretiveness? I don’t know. But maybe because not knowing keeps people of faith pondering, seeking, leaning forward into a future they cannot control or even imagine. It keeps us considering the merits of finding God present in our neighbor… in our enemy, in the land our grandchildren will inherit, in the work of our hands, in the stranger at our door. 

In Hebrew scripture, Moses’ righteousness comes primarily from two events – saying, “Okay” and packing up all his things and leaving home with no plan of his own in mind when God said, “Go from your father’s home to a land that I will show you,” and the second event – when he prepared a fine feast for three sojourners who showed up at his tent flap simply asking for water and bread. He served a feast for strangers, and in so doing, unknowingly, he served the angels of God.

The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways – and causes us to open the door and let in the light. That’s the good news for the world. Actually, it may be the only hope for the world – to think that at any moment it might be God.

Mark’s gospel is called the messianic secret because secrecy, the mystery of God at any moment, is a big theme.  God is in Jesus, hidden and revealed, denied, rejected, transformed, given to to all things – all of creation.  It’s not so much a secret or even a mystery in the way we think of mysteries as something to be figured out and solved. The messianic secret is humility in knowing that we aren’t God and can’t begin to understand God’s ways apart from our own will.

The greatest mystery might be that God can be in us, in you – that this is holiness, this life is sacred space – if we allow it to be for us. That we have some mysterious, unknown-to-us part in being the kingdom of God, in serving proverbial angels while unaware of their identity. It is complex, this kingdom of heaven – not complicated like a tax form, but complex like the flavors, hints, earthiness and aromas written on the label of a bottle of wine.

If you want to know something definitive about the kingdom of heaven, then look to Jesus and notice whom he defended and whom he befriended. Think about our predisposed ideas and assumptions of people and church and tradition – and then consider who is being excluded or denied by those assumptions.

There is no easy take-home message for us in these parables. Some of the sayings baffle me. Still, they ask that we engage our imaginations and follow the possibilities and incongruities between two worlds – one, where everything is planned, linear, logical, and discoverable, and one filled with mysteries and surprises. The kingdom of God is this world into which a suffering, sovereign God beckons you, and invites you to look with new eyes.

Mark 2

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” 

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”  Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. 

7 Jesus departed with his disciples to the lake, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.

Things move quickly in the opening chapters of Mark’s account of Jesus’ life. There’s no sweet introit with angels and shepherds and a baby divinity – no ‘runty redeemer’ as Jenni’s Christmas program dubbed him. Even so, our first glimpse of Jesus is quite pleasant. He steps out of the crowd that’s gone to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. As Jesus rises from the water, the clouds clear, the sun dazzles, and we, as insiders to the story along with the narrator, hear the voice directed only to Jesus that claims him as God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.  The spirit, like a dove, settles on him. That, along with the detailed description of John, provides a satisfying visual opening scene. We settle in to hear a story. 

Jesus passes his Vision Quest in the desert, and collects his first disciples. We notice their ‘attraction at first sight’ that causes them to drop the tools of their livelihoods and follow him immediately, and we get more context – Jesus is a teacher – one who astounds with wisdom and authority people have never heard before. Then we learn that he can heal – a fever, unclean spirits, leprosy. By nightfall all of the cities’ sick and demon infested are at his door.

At the end of the first chapter Jesus is a celebrity – sought-after and singled out, a man of awe. Magnetism and charisma, he’s got.

But if Mark’s Jesus generates crowd appeal through God’s power for healing and new life, he generates conflict and opposition in equal measure.

Chapter 2 provides the first inciting event in the plot of Mark’s story and then they tumble together one after another. The tone is set for the main conflict of the story that develops between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees who at first seem to be caught by surprise at Jesus’ words and works –  observing him in action and pondering in their hearts – something any number of us can imagine ourselves doing. What is he up to, where does this ability come from, what is it that he’s saying?  It’s not quite kosher.  

Then they see Jesus eating and meeting with tax collectors and sinners, and they question Jesus’ disciples about his motivation, his rationale.

We, too, tend to judge people by the company they keep, the food they eat or buy. We have a list of those, whom – for one reason or another – we would put in the category of sinner and tax collector – those who are morally, ethically, theologically, politically, physically, or personally objectionable to us. Right?

After the fourth encounter – when Jesus heals on a Sabbath in the synagogue, they have had enough. They can’t argue against his questions, can’t understand his power, but everything he does offends their beliefs. He quotes scripture and then interprets it in ways that upsets everything they’ve been taught. It seems to cut to the heart of the matter – to the heart of God – and exposes a truth they’re not ready for. 

For generations, these professional religious have been tasked with insulating and protecting, setting apart – keeping hidden – the Holy of holies – the sacred presence of God. They kept it within Judah, Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the temple, in an inner room, behind a curtain – into which the high priest was allowed to go just once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to offer a sacrifice for the people’s sin. This distance was necessary because holiness is dangerous!

There is an ancient strain of religious tradition that says that which is holy cannot come into contact with the profane without destroying it. God’s holy fire cannot tolerate corrupt human flesh. Rather, God must be mediated through sacred space. And so for generations, the religious leaders have kept the people protected from the nearness of God through layers of mitigating laws like growth rings encircling the heartwood of a tree. 613 laws spiral the original 10 commandments. But here is Jesus breaking those laws willy nilly; claiming to be the presence of God, yet walking around among the dirty and sinful and infectious? It’s not possible. This can’t be happening.

Jesus brings out a completely different, deeper tradition – that God is present everywhere, accessible to all of creation; that God brings holiness to the people, in God’s self, in compassion and love. God does not wait behind the curtain to be approached once a year on tiptoe and in fear.

But anyway, on this day, the Pharisees and scribes have had it. Jesus had to be shushed, dealt with, stopped before it went any further. They left the synagogue, and  – after a brief meeting in the parking lot – agreed to conspire with the king’s men – the Herodians – in order to destroy him. Think about that phrase for a moment: not in order to stop him, censure him, silence him, imprison him, or even kill him; but destroy him, erase him, from-dust-into-dust him.  Their fear of change, of new possibilities – of their professional status and social standing being made obsolete – their fear of this uncontrollable power Jesus commands hardens their hearts and sets the trajectory for the rest of the story.

It seems to be true that people in power want to stay there, and that they want things their way, and therefore, they fear change and new information if they’re not in possession of it. I recognize that in myself in my very small realm of power. We see it here in the gospel. We see it in the embarrassing and inept way our politicians in Washington behave. Like the scribes and Pharisees, they, too, have hardened their hearts to any truth that doesn’t fit their agenda, party line and re-election efforts. They, too, have lost sight of the the content of their purpose – promoting justice and the welfare of the people – while they shore up the institution that keeps them blind – but in power. It’s an old game. In hardening their hearts, the Pharisees and scribes closed their minds to what their eyes were seeing and ears were hearing. 

What the open-minded people saw was prophetic promise becoming incarnate right in front of their eyes. The lame can walk, the blind can see, even the unseen and dangerous spirit world obeyed Jesus. It turns out that God’s presence does not need to be kept in the dark of the temple’s inner chamber. That presence among the people, touching them, was healing them, not consuming them. Jesus said it was actually the scribes who were devouring the widows and the poor. If the Pharisees had gone back to their scriptures with open eyes, they would have seen that what seemed so new and reckless in Jesus, was actually very old indeed. But they didn’t.

I think that dynamic of old and new is interesting and maybe important. Jesus is clearly new to the established order, new to the earth. In his baptism the clouds didn’t clear – I said that to be poetic. What the Hebrew says is that as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens ripping themselves apart – schizomenous – violently tearing asunder, cleaving apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”  That word is used three times in this gospel: in Jesus’ baptism with the heavens, at the moment of Jesus’ death, “Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple (the curtain dividing the holy of holies and the people) was torn schizomenous in two, from top to bottom.” Schizma it’s used one more time: it’s here, tucked in the middle of the escalating division between Jesus and the Pharisees.  “As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast,” Jesus said.  “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.  No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse schizo is made.  And no one puts new wine into old wineskins;” or the wine will burst the skins, and that would be a tragedy.

A patch of new cloth sits between the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when God claims Jesus as her son, and Jesus’ last earthly breath. That’s heady company for a ripped cloak. Mark is careful about words – this isn’t a common word, and it isn’t an accident. The hardening hearts of the scribes and Pharisees, the cleaving of old from new is a definitive action, a pivotal moment of cosmic consequence. God is on the ground, present in Jesus, self-revealing in acts of power and mercy, meeting people in all their need; responding, teaching, touching them, and the scribes and Pharisees set up a divide, pull their old cloak around themselves, tearing away from the new fabric of life. Making a choice. 

It’s a new order not calling the righteous, but sinners, seeking not the professional mediators and interpreters, but reaching out to everyone, coming not to the self-satisfied, but to those whose need is great.

The new order of Jesus is inclusive in table fellowship, seeing through the conventional rules of society that dictate who is welcome and who is not, it sees each person’s potential for wholeness, not the dis-ease that limits them. The new law of this communion is to be written on hearts, not in dusty books of judgment, so all will know the love of God, all will discover their place within the purposes of God. The sabbath is not a day to be governed by rigid rules and hardship, but a day given in grace, designed for compassionate rest for servants and animals – a day gifted for life to prosper. It’s a new schism and it threatens the established order, frees those bound by the dictates of those 613 laws ordinary people couldn’t meet, and is a challenge to us.

  Do we stand with Jesus when the needs of our world are great? (Or retreat into the safety of the status quo that favors us?) Do we open our eyes to those needs around us and do what we have within us to do? (Or do we say we are small and poor and can’t make a difference?) Do you open your heart and mind to the healing presence of Christ for you?   (Say yes.)

The beginning of the good news according to Mark

With Christmas and the birth of Jesus, the biblical narrative has moved into the New Testament – specifically, into the first gospel written – that of Mark. The gospel of Mark is unsigned and undated, but it is believed by most scholars to have been written during or shortly after the Roman-Judean War of 66-70 AD – a revolt lead by Israel against Roman domination that resulted in the cataclysmic defeat of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, the demolition of the temple.

Mark is the shortest of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death, and, maybe because of the political setting, has a compelling sense of urgency. 

We’ll read big chunks of Mark between now and Easter – today is likely the biggest.

So let’s get started. (on the web we’re skipping the very beginning)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘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.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Every thought in this chapter is connected by the word ‘and’ giving a breathless, rushed quality to the reading. It’s worse than that in Greek. They didn’t have punctuation, and the words were all in capital letters, effectively turning what Henrik and I just read into one intense sentence.

I hope you can feel the power of this narrative, the language that draws us into the story, that is bursting to tell God’s good news. The gospels, after all, do not simply offer information about past events and people of long ago… of what God did once. They are not written to be historical. The gospels promise to transform our present lives; to shape our future as people of faith, to show up in your week-old New Years resolutions or your 5-year plan.  Our lives are to respond to the gospel. Mark places us in the center of what God is doing still, now, today, in and through us and others.

The kinetic energy of the gospel propels us along. Hardly has the good news been announced by the narrator quoting Isaiah, when John the Baptist appears gathering crowds awed by his prophetic preaching and the double edge of warning and promise that accompanies the forgiveness of sins. And as we’re observing the person of John in his odd attire and perhaps mentally considering the crunch and nutritional value of grasshoppers, the promised one jumps into the scene and into the river and is baptized as the heavens are torn apart and a voice announces God’s divine favor. As quickly as he appeared, Jesus is gone again – driven out into the desert where Satan and wild animals and angels dwell. In the next breath, we hear that John has been imprisoned. Jesus gathers his first four disciples  – fishermen who suddenly, immediately, abandon their former lives, their families and their nets and follow him. And immediately, Jesus leads them into a synagogue where the crowds marvel at his teaching and his authoritative word that can overcome demons.  And thus begins the ministry of Jesus. Whew!

As evening settles on that Sabbath day it might be tempting for Jesus to sit back with a good meal, a glass of wine, to bask in the successful exorcism, to hear the accolades of his teaching – to be pleased, satisfied, that his reputation is quickly spreading throughout all of Galilee. The kingdom of God has come.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, 1568 – 1625)

 

But in this story, there is no time for resting on laurels. Immediacy is its essence. The story bursts through the synagogue doors and pushes towards the rest of Galilee — out of Sunday and into the rest of the week, out of the distant past and into the rest of our lives, into the places that this good and fearsome news of Jesus will take us. 

This opening chapter of Mark announces that the story, the presence, of Jesus is always on the move, and will not allow any of us as hearers (and bearers) of the Word to remain who or where we are. It’s unnerving –  and, of course, it’s intentional. 

So, where are you? What do you hear in this chapter that moves you, or stumps you? As information,  you’ve heard it before – many times – so what makes it the gospel, the good news of God come among us, for you?

Answering that question might bring the Enlightenment to the fore. Once we get into the New Testament we can’t avoid a culture clash – more so than in the Hebrew Bible, I think. Greek philosophy found its way into the scriptures of the New Testament. Perhaps most significantly, in the separation of body and spirit, creating a dichotomy where God created a unity of being. 

In our western culture, the Enlightenment expanded the boundaries to a dichotomy between reason and faith, science and mysticism. That makes hearing the gospels difficult for many. Biblical healings are searched for a modern scientific footing. Evil spirits are outside the realm of most of our experiences, so therefore are not seen as credible and our eyes skim over the top. Supernatural occurrences belong in fiction and video games and the movie theater, you might think – not in my faith. 

As you can tell from this first chapter, the dichotomy (I think the false dichotomy) of mystery and truth will need to be part of our consideration as we make our way through Mark.

23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 

Oh dear. Demons and unclean spirits. Talking, sentient demons and unclean spirits no less. We’re moving out of the comfort zone, right? Globally, we do still inhabit a world of competing spirits or powers. Eastern Ancestor worship and many native belief traditions have no problem with this part of the gospel, but it can sure trip us up.  For children of the Enlightenment, it’s a bit strange to encounter evil spirits with voices. We’ve seen too many movies of aliens and such, and the best we can do is attribute it to mental illness. 

But think about it for a minute. Are you sure you’re free of demons and unclean spirits?

We are all caught up by something – compelled, encumbered, addicted, obsessed, bound by something – probably many things, and they have tremendous power over us. You might picture the spirits in Medieval form as little red devils with pointy tails and tiny spikey spears poised on your shoulder, or they can take the form of any of the tempters that plague us.

How about guilt for some harm we have done, some secret we hold,  shame we carry over something that has been done to us? How about resentment or anger or jealousy you can’t shake. How about the many flavors of addiction? How about mental illness, or cancer? Do these not hold power over you? Would you not like them to come bursting out of you and roll around, powerless on the floor?  

AA deals with demons and healing from unclean spirits in the most honest, up-front way I can think of.  They readily acknowledge that we can’t manage our own lives and they turn to a higher power for help. Something big has got hold of us. Something will drive us, something will co-opt and override our good will… will it be the spirit of God or of something else? What’s gotten hold of you from which you need to be set free?

In Mark, the demons are palpably real, actively alarming, and Jesus casts them out and will not let them speak. But their presence in the opening verses is a sobering reminder that demonic powers do not go quietly and they, too, form a premonition of what is to come in this story.

Beginning with the healing of a few individual persons, the numbers in the story tumble with staggering effect that no attempt to explain or discount them can undo.  We are to be awed. People bring “all” who are sick to Jesus; the “whole city” is at his door. He heals “many” who are sick with “all sorts” of diseases and casts out “many” demons. The success seems unstoppable and overbearing, suffocating. People come from every quarter of the land, pressing in on him. God’s life-giving, creation-speaking word is clearly evident in Jesus. The healer of our every ill has come among us. And the need for healing is real.

In the morning Jesus is up early and out again in the wilderness, in prayer. They will move on – “It is for this reason that I came” he said – to preach and teach in the cities that lie ahead. Jesus’ words name the purpose and mission that is already part of the story. They breathe the power of forgiveness and healing that God has in store for all the world, in all times and places.

In just this way, Mark invites us into faith. Stumbling ahead, pathway unseen, perils unknown, fear and hope in equal, mixed-up measure. What if we were to be persuaded by this good news? What if our lives, from this day forward, were to be shaped by confidence in the One who invites us into healing and forgiveness and hope? This story is not only about a Palestinian community 2000 years ago. It is a story that bursts beyond its time and place, beyond Sunday worship, coming into our lives with its power to see the good news of God in a new way, to be inspired with a new vision for and of ourselves, to be healed in unexpected and mysterious ways. The gospel of Jesus is not what you expect. It’s much more than that. Open your heart and mind to take it in, and be changed.

Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid,that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 

3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ 

6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 


8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,  ‘Here is your God!’ 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 

11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom; he will gently lead the mother sheep. 

These poems of Second Isaiah are written 150 years after the first part of Isaiah. The Assyrians were defeated by Babylonia and Babylonia was in turn defeated by Persia. The prophet’s words ring with hope because of a new foreign policy. The exiles are allowed to go home.

Persia maintained control over the people, but allowed them to live in their native lands as long as they remained loyal to the government. Isaiah credits this change in foreign policy to God, who works through King Cyrus to change the status of the displaced Jews.

After half a century in exile and shame, a new word breaks through their gloom, a word that promises reversal, that speaks of expectation, of hope for those who wait in darkness – that their iniquity and punishment will be replaced in God’s mercy with restoration. This new voice of prophecy is a message that in spite of, and in the midst of, human misery, God comes to us, has plans for us, will gather, and carry, and gently lead us. 

“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

This is not a victory speech. The opening words of comfort aren’t announcing it so much as prescribing it, commanding comfort to be offered. This is a  ‘reason to venture forth’ speech – a word of hope and anticipation to justify or outweigh the uncertainty, the hardship that is still to come.   Isaiah balks: “ How can it be? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” nothing new can happen. They can’t be faithful or stand firm, and so God will hide his face again and devastation will follow disaster.” But instead Isaiah is told, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”  The prophet is sent to regather Zion, the scattered people of God, and recommission them with the covenant once given to Abraham – to be a blessing to the nations, be a light to the people, to show them the way to God. 

That’s a far cry from life in exile under the oppressive and watchful eye of Babylon.

Isaiah is somehow to fortify and re-member the house of Jerusalem. He is to tell them that “you have served your term. It may seem like the Lord has forgotten his people, that God has turned away and favored our enemies, but your time is soon coming; a time when all the world will see that God’s power and love are for all time, that God’s justice is greater than the days of your oppression; indeed, your salvation and your deliverance are at hand.”       

The poem doesn’t promise that all suffering will end, but it announces – reminds – that the unexpected can happen: that God still comes, still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.

The message Isaiah receives is that comfort is coming even though nothing has changed. The people are still in exile and based on what we know – based on what they have demonstrated in the past, they will always be in exile from God. They will never be able to live according to God’s intention or will for them. They will never be deserving of comfort – for they are as faithless as grass – it withers and the flowers fade – an apt metaphor for their inability to stick with the covenant. “Surely the people are grass.” Isaiah knows it. God knows it. And God says, “Speak comfort to them anyway, tell them the power of the Lord is coming to them anyway.” The people’s inconstancy won’t change, but God claims them anyway. 

It’s not about what they – or we – will do; it’s about what God will do. “I will make a highway through the wilderness, I will provide springs in the desert, I will come to them, lead them and carry them. Surely the people are grass, just as surely, I am God,” says God.

It is in the season of Advent that we are so often and poignantly reminded, through scripture and in song, of the rift that lies between what is and what will be. The once and future nature of Christ’s coming reminds us that we are in the middle – trusting a promise, yet living a reality that is very different than that promise.

And as it always does, the world around us echoes the scriptural rift.  There are bombings and shootings, domestic violence and drugs. There are harsh truths about the global climate. Disease and death come among us. The pace of life seems on a steady, stressful increase until we think we might break under the load.

Even in the relative safety and sanity of West Denmark we’re feeling the squeeze of our calendar, the pressure of preparation. And in the midst of it all, people we love get sick, injured, disillusioned. For some it is the first Christmas without a loved member of their family. For some, the addition of a new member to the established family means much loved traditions have to be changed. For some the financial pressures of what we expect to be able to provide or participate in become a stressful, guilt-ridden, conflicted mess. For some, the loneliness of Christmas seems overwhelming, but how can we bypass Christmas, when it is so pervasive. 

“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”

What is your need for comfort? 

Do you have enough food, resources, help? Do you have a relationship with God that brings you peace? We might feel exiled from God, estranged, divorced – or be in crumbling human relationships. Is there comfort to be found? A path forward? A home through others? 

We might feel overwhelmed and long for those childhood days of joy and wonder and excitement, instead of the weight and effort and financial stress of the holiday. Can the church offer a new perspective?

Where is comfort to be found? 

Most of us would say home, picturing the hygge components of comfort, companionship, food and warmth. But we know that homeless shelters are brimming this time of year and so are domestic violence shelters. Where is comfort to be found? How might we extend our light and privilege to those in need?

Where is it in your life that you seek the comfort of God?

Can you think of someone who needs a word of comfort right now?  How might you meet them with acts or words of empathy and caring?

In these weeks leading up to Christmas we might feel more acutely than at other times, that we are conquered people: undeserving of God’s mercy, stuck in patterns and pathways that lead us nowhere, longing for deliverance and not seeing it on the horizon. 

And into this, Isaiah repeats the word of God. “Comfort.” It’s not based on what we do to deserve it, it’s a gift from God. It’s a gift of God through you for the sake of others. “I will come to you,” said God so many years ago to a conflicted, defeated people of exile. 

“Take Comfort, my people. I will come to you,” God continues to call through scripture, through church, through the weeks of Advent. “I’m coming,” says God, “as I have always come – into the midst of you, hidden, and in glory.”

God will come whether we get things done, or not. Whether we are disappointed by the results and by our own efforts, or not. Whether we stop to meditate properly on the significance of Christ’s coming, or not. Whether we can free ourselves from the encumbrance of too many traditions and expectations, or not. God will come to us, just the same. May you recognize him in the manger, in the workings of your life, in the companionship of others, in the comfort – that real comfort that we long for. May you anticipate and look for God’s coming in all the surprising and unexpected ways of God, and somehow feel that comfort of true belonging nurtured deep in your soul. God remains hidden, and yet God comes. May that be a word of hope for you as we wait.

Resources: Corrine Carvalho. Professor University of St. Thomas. St. Paul, MN Michael J. Chan Assistant Professor of Old Testament Luther Seminary Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, chapter 8, “Second Isaiah”

Advent 1 ~ The days are surely coming

The book of Jeremiah is the longest of the Old Testament, and is dominated by gloom and doom. Jeremiah was a prophet for a long time, spanning the last three kings of Judah and the exile of the people. Like the prophets before him, Jeremiah is charged with words of condemnation for his community, king, and nation for abandoning their identity as the people of God. Jeremiah is to announce their imminent destruction, belaboring both God’s judgment and God’s grief over Judah. They have systematically violated the covenantal agreements. They have transgressed the Ten Commandments through economic policies that abused the poor, by foreign policy that centered on military might rather than on justice and mercy, by theological practices that countered God’s word, and by illusions of privilege. In the theology of their day, these violations will culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of its elite as a natural consequence of their actions.

In the midst of judgment and gloom come a dense cluster of promises. They glimmer with visions of hope, comfort and restoration. These few chapters of Jeremiah proclaim that after the judgment of exile is over, God will indeed bring the people back to the land of Judah and restore them as a new and faithful people. This light in the darkness is significant because it suggests that what Jeremiah pronounced as God’s “anger and wrath” are not the final words. God’s will is for things to be set right through the people’s repentance and obedience. God does not want their death, but their life lived in the light of God’s teaching.

From Jeremiah chapter 33, the book of consolation:

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 

16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” 

17 For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, 18 and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.

The light shines in the darkness… and the darkness has not overcome it. 

Hymn 261   As the dark awaits the dawn.   

Even before Thanksgiving dishes are washed and put away, Christmas is in full swing. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and tomorrow’s Cyber Monday surround and overwhelm the first Sunday of Advent like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt overwhelmed and oppressed ancient Israel. 

And from here it’s a rush to Christmas day and after-Christmas sales. God’s word of objection to the world’s will and way of power, commerce and consumption is seriously muted, made quite irrelevant to the bottom line. We’ve got too much to do in preparation for Christmas, too much at stake in this holiday, to pay attention to the coming of God in Christ. The irony of that will gradually sink in. 

The four weeks of preparation for the Advent of that Word are crowded with parties, shopping, cookie baking, meal planning, over indulging, over buying. It’s a bit discouraging to be an Advent people: to feel the pull of Christmas wonder and fun and holy joy, and yet hold it back, waiting, letting the longing and self-reflection have it’s day. We might recognize the once and future sense of Christ’s coming, but still get swept along in the cultural stampede of 20% off sales, this day only.

For some reason, Advent is an unexploited gem. More than a holiday or festival, it is a season – a short season for those of us with short attention spans – just four weeks. I guess wreath and candle sales are the commercial side of Advent, but that’s not much. It’s colors are blues – midnight blue so dark it’s almost black, then gradually lightening blues, brightening to pink and palest blue on the horizon, then gold as the sun rises on Christmas morn. 

It’s appropriate that Advent begins in the dark. That is where prophecy finds us. As ancient Judah could not see the coming onslaught of Babylon, but chose to think God would always protect them as a people, so we in our day, have lived oblivious to social and environmental prophets’ words. We have preferred to stay in the dark on such matters, minding our own business, as though care of creation, the poor, and our fellow creatures is not our primary business. And even if we listen and agree, the doing is another matter when it means radical change.

Jeremiah’s prophecy was not welcomed, either. He was imprisoned for his discouraging words, the future of his consolations was too distant to comfort. Yes, Jerusalem would be destroyed, it was inevitable now, but the days are surely coming, he said, when God will bring return and renewal.

Historically, these promises were not fulfilled, have not been fulfilled, and so the day has not yet come for justice and righteousness in the land.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord…

Anticipation, Hope, Expectation – these are the words of Advent. And this prophesy is perfect. The days are surely coming. Jewish people are still awaiting this day, this Messiah. Christians believe the day has dawned, but not arrived in its fullness. We, too, wait for peace, for justice and wholeness in the land – and more and more – for the land. Ecological justice is our calling and may be our dread.

But Advent doesn’t give up. Christ has come and Christ will come again, we profess. Dark it may be, but more light and light it grows. Advocacy is the new righteousness, people like Greta our new prophets.

This Advent we are focusing on ELCA World Hunger. You may have noticed ornaments taped to the front doors. They are supposed to be on a small tree, but my plans got snowed under. Each ornament represents a gift – $50 for a goat, $25 to feed a refugee family, $10 to stock a backpack with food, $15 for a rooster, $125 for a micro loan for a woman, $30 for a water filter…on they go. If you would like to give the gift, you take the ornament, sign your name and place it and your check in the offering plate. 

These gifts are little sparks of light for those who dwell with deeper darkness than we do. We can’t buy off our iniquity like carbon offsets. We must also prayerfully consider the lifestyle choices and changes our prophets call us to enact. Advent is a short season. The need is not.

Jeremiah didn’t have the assurance of Advent to work with, what he warned against was the abandonment of God. While this is not our worry, he makes an interesting point – which Abraham Heschel describes in his commentary, The Prophets: pg 142-3: 

“Israel’s distress was more than human tragedy. With Israel’s distress came the affliction of God, His displacement, His homelessness in the land, in the world. And the prophet’s prayer, “O save us,” involved not only the fate of a people. It involved the fate of God in relation to the people. The Lord who had dwelt in the midst of Israel was abandoning His dwelling place. But should Israel cease to be His home, then God, we might say, would be without a home in the world. He would not have left His people altogether, but He would be among them like a stranger, like a wayfarer, withholding His power to save.

Jeremiah was constantly exposed to the situation of God, and tirelessly attentive to the mood of the people, attempting to unravel the knots in the relationship between God and Israel.”

Our calling as Christians in Advent is to wait for the coming of Christ, to work for justice and peace as an embodiment of our faith in Christ, and to look for sparks of light, glowing faces, radiant hope in the people of God’s love and concern – that is, I believe, in all people – and creatures, too.

Jeremiah’s parting word for us, from chapter 14:

“You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Leave us not.”