A Busy Week

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is always busy doing good, but he’s never in a hurry. Obstacles are placed in his way, but he exudes confidence that the kingdom of God will not be delayed. The people he meets, themselves, face incredible challenges. In one week alone; he helps his disciples deal with a storm (crossing Galilee twice in a small boat), confronts a man enslaved to mental illness (a legion of demons), heals a woman with a persistent illness (bleeding), and raises a twelve year old child from the dead. At the end of this hectic time (Mark 4:35-6:3), he goes to church and gets heckled by people because of his humble origins (the illegitimate child of Joseph the carpenter). Everything Jesus does, though, is summed up by what he taught at the week’s beginning; the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, growing among us. Even when it looks small, it is persistent (Mark 4:30-32).

So when we read stories like raising Jairus’s daughter, we shouldn’t say “Look how powerful Jesus is” (Mark 5:21-43). Instead, look at what surrounds these miracles. Jesus teaches how the kingdom of God is among us. Then Jesus sends the disciples (and us) out to do the same things he was doing, always working to forward the good that God has planned for this world (Mark 6:7-13).

Sunday, July 1, 2018
Pentecost 8

Non-Anxious Presence

There are miracles that only Jesus can do, and there are miracles where Jesus is providing an example for us to follow. In Mark 4, Jesus is out in the boat with the disciples and a storm comes up. Time for a miracle which only he can do. Jesus calms the sea. But wait, the story begins with Jesus asleep in the bow and when the disciples wake him and say, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”,  Jesus rebukes their anxiety by saying, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Note the back and forth of that dialogue. Hear it this way: Us, “Don’t you care?” Jesus, “Why are you anxious?”  Substitute whatever crisis you recently went through for the storm that caused the  anxiety in the disciples. I bet your dialogue with Jesus was the same. Jesus does the miracle of calming the sea, so that the disciples might learn to be non-anxious people in the midst of the storms of life.

I recently went through a family crisis. People were shouting. Anxiety was high. I would gladly have traded places with those disciples in the boat tossed by the storm on Galilee. Anxiety is anxiety, fear is fear. It doesn’t matter if we are in a boat, a hospital room, a family crisis, a fox hole. The miracle is that we can learn to be non-anxious people. We can apply the lessons of Jesus and faith. We can step back and rebuke our fears. Further, when we are in the boat with people who are having their own personal storms and are causing us havoc, we can choose to be the non-anxious presence. Being like Jesus, this is the essence of our faith. Where is your faith?

Sunday, June 24, 2018
Pentecost 7

Organic Process and God's Grace

Gardening always reconnects me with the grace of God. I have a hard time justifying it during the end of May, when I am busy with so many other things, both in the yard and with church meetings. In spring, time narrows. There a few precious hours to mow, till, plant, and weed, between the rains. And yet now, about a month into it, I find myself pausing and just looking at the vegetable plants. They are vigorous. Each one is a miracle. Jesus uses the pride that farmers have in their crops to talk about the graceful and organic way of the spirit. God scatters the seed of his word to the earth. It is received by the open heart of the soil. Good things spring to life. Everyone anticipates a bountiful harvest.

These images give rural people and gardeners an advantage in understanding the organic process of God’s love. The critical verse is Mark 4:28, “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” Jesus says that the growth of holiness in our lives and in the world is an organic process, like the gradual transition of seed to plant to fruit to the easing of hunger. One could also speak of the process of acorn to oak to wood to house to home.

So the first question to ask may be, is holiness growing in your personal life in an organic and healthy way? You could ask the same question of your church. What about your neighborhood? Is there a healthy process of development; people needing shelter, to houses to homes and schools to young adults who leave the neighborhood to start lives elsewhere, remembering the values, missional mindset, and spirituality that they had been taught?

Sunday, June 17, 2018
Pentecost 6

This is what a King will do...

There is a common proverb that goes, “You better be careful what you ask for; because you just might get it.” This is true in politics, parenting, and in our prayers. I’ve come to believe that more people are impoverished by their wishes than by their misfortunes. We think we know what we want — we are all a bit like King Midas who wished to have everything he touched turn to gold, until he touched his daughter. We want wealth. (Play the lottery, anyone?) God wants us to have inner peace, the satisfaction of work done well, and relationships that don’t depend upon extravagant gift giving. We want to teach our kids the value of money, so we give them an allowance. They go out and compare it with what their friends are getting, and think better or worse of us. So in the end, we have taught them to value us only for our money.

Instead of the value of money, we should be teaching them the value of community, shared labor, and the unconditional nature of family love. The things we need to learn, are exactly the things we need to teach to our kids. When we pray, we ask God to give us our daily bread, so that we can break it and share it in love, rather than being led by our temptations to hoard it or be greedy. Be careful what you ask for.

Sunday, June 10, 2018
Pentecost 3

Rules don't always Rule

Our society is getting obsessed by rules. I grew up in 1960s, we broke the rules. Go to Barnes &Noble and just note how many books have the word rules in the title. You’ll find 10 rules for dieting, dating, and getting your dog to behave. One of the best sellers on Amazon this year was  “Robert’s Rules of Order.” Why now?

I’m betting that it has to do with our current political polarization. Whether you are arguing about immigration or the Russia investigation, one or both sides will be running to the rulebook to make their case. The NFL just passed a rule regarding players kneeling during the anthem. Notice that they didn’t pass a rule to prevent hot dogs and beer from the being sold during the anthem, or the announcers speaking over the playing of the anthem, or the coaches using the 10 extra minutes they can get with all the players in the locker room to prep for the game.

All of this has something to do with Jesus. Mark begins his gospel by showing us Jesus breaking the rules. There was a lot of religious rules back then that most people ignored — But if you were a religious teacher, you were expected to keep all the rules, plus make up a few more, just to prove yourself more holy. Jesus didn’t play this game.

Sunday, June 3, 2018
Pentecost 3

Spiritual Rebirth

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room. None of us gets born alone. Your birth was work for your mother, that’s why we call it labor. You merely allowed yourself to be pushed. All of this doubly applies to our spiritual birth. God labors to bring us to new life. This may be why Jesus speaks about being born again, instead of using an eastern turn of phrase like, coming to enlightenment.

We often forget this mystery when speak about faith. Some people make a memorial out of the moment they came to believe. They remember the evangelists, music, scriptures, teachers, and books that influenced them. In all these little details, it is easy to forget the wind of God incompressible spirit. It blows where it wills without any dependence upon human communicators. We were not saved by being in that particular church on the night so and so spoke. We are saved by God, who in His prevenient grace stacks the dominoes so that they all fall in the right sequence for us and we get pushed into new life.

Consider Nicodemus. This man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the brotherhood of the Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. Ask him about his faith and he will speak for hours about his teachers and the respected elders of his religious order. Jesus silences him with one phrase, “You must be born again.”

This is not a command, but a statement of fact. Nicodemus isn’t being told to adopt a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where the only other person in the room is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible.

Sunday, May 27, 2018
Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday

Why Pentecost Matters

In every parish that I served, I encouraged people to think of Pentecost as one of the three great holidays of the church. There is Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They are of equal importance and should be celebrated with the same degree of serious preparation. Christmas allows us to speak of the Trinity and the uniqueness of Jesus among men. Our systematic theology goes into high gear as we try to speak about God’s mission to save all of humanity. In Easter we rediscover the passion of God and the wretchedness of humanity. Our theology goes low, as we identify with the people who stood by his cross and then carried our Lord to the grave. Easter is a story filled with transition, the greatest example being the resurrection.

    In Pentecost, we realized that both Christmas and Easter occurred, not simply that individuals might be saved, but that a religious community might be formed. We push people towards the end of the second chapter of acts, when we realized that all this fire and wind resulted in the birth of the church as an organization. The spiritual birth of the church, I believe, was when Jesus gathered people on a hillside and told them that they were already blessed by God (Matthew 5:1-9). Three years later, the day of Pentecost takes this awareness that we are a blessed people, and empowers us to organize to share that blessing. On Pentecost, our theology goes wide.

Sunday, May 20, 2018
Pentecost Sunday

Jesus prays for your Small Group

I have been thinking a lot about small groups lately. Jesus begins with a small group — twelve disciples. At the end of the Last Supper, before he leads his disciples out to the garden where he will be betrayed and taken to his passion, Jesus dedicates this small group to God. The way John remembers that prayer (John 17:1-26), it was filled with references to the importance of this small group. Jesus prays that the spiritual truths that has imparted in the course of his work with this little fellowship might be established. He presents these eleven before God (Judas had left), as if they were a trust, that he has been a steward responsible for. When we join a small group for Bible study today, we are entering into a spiritual trust. We pray for each other as Jesus prayed for his disciples and the Holy Spirit used the group to protect and nurture our souls.

I think that even today, Christians who participate in small groups for spiritual study and prayer, enter into a deeper covenant with God, than those who simply come to worship. Why? How about the following:

  • Character is not learned from lectures or sermons. Discipleship formation happens in small groups.
  • Real physical, psychological, and spiritual Healing happens in small groups
  • Small groups are often the incubators for leadership development and transforming change in the community.

Through small groups, Jesus continues to engage the world today. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). How can we negotiate this narrow path without the support of other Christians who know us well and speak about faith in an intimate context.

Sunday, May 13, 2018
Easter 7

Defined by Love

Scholars may argue about whether the same man wrote the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, but John 15 and 1 John 5 sound like two peas in a pod. John is trying to simplify the relationship with have with each other and with Jesus into two words. The words Abide and Love. I want to go one step further and simplify the whole church experience into this concept of Abiding Love. Church is where people support each other in abiding in the love of God, and where God’s spirit supports us in abiding in love with those close to us. 

 

Did you know that the dictionary definition for church doesn’t contain the word love. It goes as follows: “Church is a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” (Apple dictionary)

 

Sunday, May 6, 2018
Easter 6

Perfectly Loving

I always get a chuckle when someone asks me for my home email and I say bill at not-perfect-yet dot com" and they respond “perfect.” They don’t even hear themselves doing it. “Perfect” has entered into our modern vocabulary to replace “okay.”  This is truly ironic. Now putting aside this odd ambiguity, what does the Bible mean when it says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12). We live in a world that is desperate for real love. When we engage, even momentarily, in an authentic, selfless, other-honoring relationship with another person, we allow them to see God in us. This is real perfection.

We live today in a world where our coffee is ground to perfectly identical grains, where our computer perfectly transmits our ill-conceived emails, and where our phones can perfectly tell us the time the sun will rise on this date in the year 2525 (if humankind survives that long). “Perfect” is possible for any product that doesn’t depend upon human input. We mortals regularly mess up coffee making, misspell emails, and often fail to rise in time to see the sun do its thing, perfectly. We also mess up love; the one thing we flawed creatures can do well which machines will never do at all.

Sunday, April 29, 2018
Easter 5

Abide

John asks a tough question: “how can the love of God abide in us, if we have in our hands the things someone else needs to survive, and we don’t offer what we have to help them” (I John 3:17). The context of John’s question is a call for Christians to help other Christians. This verse follows his command, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v16). Obviously, he is writing to people adjacent to people experiencing persecution. In the first three centuries of the church, the sharp focus of physical persecution (imprisonments and executions) was always surrounded by a broader circle of people losing their jobs and homes because of social prejudice, and these sufferers are surrounded in turn by people like you and I who are doing okay, but not sacrificing to help. Could such a thing happen today?

 

John’s question goes hand in hand with the way another John, John the Baptist described the kingdom of heaven, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Jesus said many similar things and he intentionally broadened this command to say that we must even share our coats with our enemies (Luke 6:29). Jesus calls us to be compassionate on both Christians and strangers, and never permitted the kind of circle drawing that we see in today’s church. Many congregations have a rule that they won’t directly help someone who not a member, or at least, a Christian. How can we abide with God and hold onto such narrow minded behavior?

 

Sunday, April 22, 2018
Easter 4

Why Believing is Important

Jesus has to do some pretty silly stuff to get people to believe that he’s alive. In John 20, he lets Thomas poke him in the side. In Luke 24:36-48 he eats a bit of fish. Don’t think of a nice salmon broiled with butter. No. The disciples are poor folk in Jerusalem during the height of the tourist season. The city is three days away from the sea. The fish is likely to be boney. Think a pounded piece of perch from Galilee, dried on the dock, packed in salt — the bottom of the barrel. Jesus has a resurrected body. He’s not hungry. He does it so that they will believe.

So believing is really important. We need to believe that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. That believing in Jesus has the power to change our lives. And that Jesus died, intentionally, to save us from our sins. And that Jesus is alive again, and promises to make us alive again when we die.

Yet believing seems to be something that we can’t control. God knows that real spirituality has to be cultivated slowly and diligently in our lives. He doesn’t overwhelm us with obvious “that’s got to be God” moments. He scatters a few spiritual ah-has over the years. Yet, we are commanded to believe.

While the moment of belief seems to be out of our control, we are responsible for putting ourselves in the right place. Most of the disciples hung together, even though it was difficult, after Jesus was crucified. The came back to the upper room, swimming upstream against their doubts. They put themselves in a place, and with a fellowship, where faith was possible.

And Jesus rewarded them.

Sunday, April 15, 2018
Easter 3

Looking for Unity

Where were you on April 4, 1968? Those of you who were not born yet may be wondering why I ask the question. I was 14 and growing into social, political, and spiritual awareness —the three are woven together — in an all-white suburb of Pittsburgh. Shortly after Dr.Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Hill District erupted in a week-long riot. The clash of police and protestors was the lead story on every news channel across the country. It was my introduction to the racial divide that still plagues our country. In that formative moment, I was prone to accept the views of my all-white friends. I don’t remember what my teachers said, but I suspect they accepted the segregated high school and community they worked in to be part of the natural order. But in a few years, I would begin to notice that the pastor and youth leaders of my church spoke of a different order; a kingdom of God where there was a hard-fought unity among all people, and a respect for diversity.

Scholars are divided about Psalm 133, which says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” They are in agreement that this is a beautiful psalm describing the joys of worship and fellowship. They disagree about whether it was written at the end of David’s life when the country was at peace, or if it was in the turbulent time after the exile, when the nation had been broken into dozens of little ethnic groups by its wars and needed to rebuild its sense of community.

Sunday, April 8, 2018
Easter 2
Martin Luther King Assassination 50th

Hearing and Believing

There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16).  In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.

 

I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:

 

Sunday, March 27, 2016
Easter Day

I didn't vote for him either

The story of Jesus falls into two halves; the part before Palm Sunday and the week after it. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus very rarely says or does anything overtly political. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition other than to teach and heal people. Then suddenly he comes to Holy Week and everything he does is political. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus deals with us on the level playing field of interpersonal relationships and the fair exchange of ideas. He teaches in open fields where people can interrupt him and ask him questions. He forms an intimate circle of disciples where everyday life — how are you today, Peter?—is valued. He heals by touching and his favorite miracle is having a few loaves of bread multiply as they are passed from one hungry person to another.

On Palm Sunday he exits the egalitarian world and enters politics as we know it today. As he transitions into the walled and gated city of our newsfeed world, he does three symbolic acts to ask for our vote: 1) He accepts the nomination of his followers who shout that he is Messiah or King of Jews, 2) He rides a donkey through the Eastern Gate, fulfilling prophesies relating to a new political age, 3) He has people wave palm branches, which are symbolic reminders of an earlier revolution when the Maccabeans kicked the Seleucids out of Jerusalem.

In doing this Jesus challenges our hierarchal world. In a world where Caesar is over Pontius Pilate, who is over the people of Judea, Jesus says, “You would have no authority if God hadn’t given it to you.” In the religious world where the High Priest rules over lesser priests who rule over laity, Jesus announces his own unique relationship as the son of God. His very presence in Jerusalem, the capital, circumvents the established authority.

Sunday, March 25, 2018
Palm Sunday
Lent 7

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