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:

 

For: 
March 27, 2016
John 20:1-18
Easter Day

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.

For: 
March 25, 2018
Mark 11:1-11
John 12:12-16
Palm Sunday
Lent 7
Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 6:00pm to Thursday, May 3, 2018 - 1:00pm

May 1-3 at the UMC Conference Center  in Des Moines, Iowa

Keynote: Dr Eric Law will present his "Holy Currencies" assessment & empowerment tool

Conference with workshops

I almost didn't do my blog today. As I awoke, my phone's text screen said that Francis, a family member, had passed. She was a woman of faith. As she lay in Hospice, I was working on the death scene of the novel I am doing. I found myself revisiting about Jesus' words, a seed has to die to being a seed in order to be alive as a plant. Good way to think about death. 

 

In John 12, Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”

 

For: 
March 22, 2015
John 12:20-33
Psalm 51
Lent 5

Back before we had a treatment for rabies, you had to catch the dog that bit you and put a bit of its hair into a potion. The thinking was that having a little hair of what caused you pain could magically cure you, kind of like a day-after flu vaccine. Magical thinking prevails in the advice that a shot of alcohol in the morning will cure a hangover (Carrie Fisher’s alcohol soaked memoir is titled, “Magical Drinking”). Hence we say, “hair of the dog” when we repeat an action in miniature that got us in trouble the night before. In actuality a heavy drinker would be better off drinking water (they are usually dehydrated), and seeing a counselor (any hangover is a sign of a toxic relationship with booze), rather than taking something that delays their reentry to reality.

Moses might well have said, “hair of the dog,” or its yiddish equivalent, when the people of the Exodus were faced with snakes in the dessert. Moses had them cast a snake in bronze wrapped around a pole. People who were bit by poisonous snakes were told to look upon this snake, lifted up, and they would be cured (Numbers 21:4-9). In an unrelated bit of mythology, the Greek/Roman god of healing, Asclepius, had a pole with a snake around it, which today is the symbol for medicine. The truth behind the magical thinking is that the prayers of Moses brought forgiveness and healing to the people. In looking to the snake and pole, the people were meant to focus on their dependance upon God, and repent from the sins that had broken their faith.

For: 
March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
Lent 4

A good beginning is needed to carry you to the end. This is true of competitive things, stock car races and swimming. It is true of education, especially in mathematics and science. It is true of marriage and all intimate relationships. It is also true of ethics and our struggle to live as godly people. Ten commandments make a good start. Sincere believers are led from these ten commandments to the great simplification, stated by Jesus as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Because I need things even simpler, I try to follow the mantra, “Always be compassionate.” But, I need to be careful here, the starting point, or good beginning, is to have no gods or idols before the one Holy God.

The small group I was leading got into a side conversation about the sad state of the world. One of the folk summed it up by saying that the last of the Ten Commandments — the one about not coveting — was the hardest, and that our failure to rid our politics, our workplaces, and our personal lives of coveting was ruining everything. To covet means to yearn to possess something that you don’t, or can’t legitimately, own. It is based on the word for greed. We all have something or someone that we covet. Spirituality involves discipling our illegitimate impulses. If we don’t begin by choosing to hold the Holy God above all other idols — oh, the things we think will give our life meaning! — we will gladly exchange a little bit of heavenly mindedness for a chance to acquire what we want today. 

For: 
March 4, 2018
Exodus 20:1-17
Lent 3

Jesus once called Peter, Satan — as in, “Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve come to think of Peter as a mother hen. He wants to protect Jesus. Keep him from any harm. I tell the people I love to be careful when they go out into icy weather. I have not yet resorted to hiding my wife’s keys when she plans to drive in the snow. That would be silly. Jesus is telling Peter that he is more than being silly. Peter’s urge to protect Jesus borders on being traitorous. He is, in this moment, Satan. For Jesus’ mission involves going to the cross. He plans on being harmed. Jesus plans on dying. That is why he reacts to Peter’s concern so dramatically.

Jesus goes on to say that each of us will go to the cross, in our own way. We must plan it into our lives. We must not let our urge to protect ourselves cause us to back away from our mission. We must not let the concerns of our loved ones keep us from doing what we are called to do. If a mother hen stands between us and doing God’s will, we call him or her Satan.

I think of Martin Luther King. As the fight for civil rights intensified, he knew it would cost him his life. He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Montgomery, April 3, 1963).  I imagine his wife had a hard time listening to that speach. Jesus says that each of us will go on to the cross in our own way.

What does Jesus mean when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”?

For: 
February 25, 2018
Mark 8:31-38
Lent 2

I think a fish could avoid getting caught if he learned to bite the fisherman instead of the bait. With this week’s shooting we have once again become polarized into two camps; some want to ban machine guns, and some of my friends are going out today to buy a gun because they fear that the second amendment is about to be taken out of the constitution. Both camps are thrashing around in someones boat. Our whole society seems caught in a net of polarized madness. Gun control one of two or three issues that are filleting America. This particular hook is baited by a diabolical organization, the NRA. They have taught their members to only vote for candidates that they have approved. They have collected vast sums of money to buy our democracy away from us.

We recently watched the movie, Molly’s Game. Not to spoil it, but Molly’s story runs on two levels; there is her rise and fall in the competitive world of Olympic ski competition. Then there is her rise and fall — fall, as in criminal indictment — as the runner of a high stakes poker game. In both stories, Molly has the rush of victory and the agony of defeat. While going for a medal at the winter Olympics, she has a fall that nearly kills her. She spent many months in the wilderness of a hospital. Jesus is baptized, sees heaven open up. God claims him as his son (scholars debate about how much he knew before this event described in Mark 1:9-12) and then the Holy Spirit drives him out into the agony of the wilderness, fasting for forty days and being harassed by wild animals and demons.

What are we to learn from this? The higher your jump, the more profound your fall? That is what you think you are seeing when you go to a movie like Molly’s Game. But two greater truths emerge: 1) That her inner sense of character, her soul, comes to the front because of her fall. She has the opportunity to “sell out” and shorten her stay in the wilderness, but she chooses instead the moral high ground. 2) We don’t know ourselves until we go into the dark place. We must either walk through the wilderness or live forever in the shallows of life.

What do we learn from Jesus being driven out into the wilderness? 1) That Jesus chose it. He chose fasting. He completed the full forty days that he had signed up for. We too must choose to be spiritual people, and that means suffering. 2) That the fullness of who we are as people only emerges after we go where we are totally empty.

For: 
February 18, 2018
Mark 1:9-12
Lent 1

A man walks into a bar and says, “Make mine a double.” What he means is take a shot of whatever spirits and put it in a glass, then double it by adding another shot. It’s a very literal thing. Instead of one ounce of booze, you have two. I think we should be more literal when talking about the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have one ounce of spirit. Sometimes we have more. When Elisha asks for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, he is imagining a real commodity. I always tell people that spiritual passion is measurable. Our soul is real, as is our God. Religion doesn’t deal with intangibles. In spiritual matters we deal with a substance that matters. In Bible times, every son got one portion of the family estate. But the first born son got a double share of the family farm. This was a real commodity that could be measured in furlongs and feet. Is the Holy Spirit that real to you?

For: 
February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1-15
Epiphany 6
Transfiguration Sunday

Mark is the Tom Clancy of the New Testament. He is an action adventure writer. His gospel moves fast. His favorite word is “immediately.” He hates the passive voice. Jesus is always doing something. As a writer, myself, I recognize the writing problem that Mark gets himself into at the end of his first chapter. Mark wants to keep the story moving, but he also wants to give us details about how Jesus spent his days. The Bible’s other authors would have written a few paragraphs about what Jesus often did, or the nature of his habits. “Often” and “routine” are not in Mark’s adventure packed vocabulary.

Many Bible scholars think that Mark, also known as John-Mark, is Peter’s ghost writer. The impulsive fisherman didn’t have time to put words to paper. Mark didn’t want to waste the reader’s time, or attention span, with talk of what Jesus ate for breakfast or how often he went to the gym. Instead, he gives us a fast paced account of a single day. He implies that this is what its like to follow Jesus. We are left thinking that being a disciple is too high stress, 24/7, type A, a thing for our lives (not that I’m criticizing Mark). Yet, Mark is an antidote to the ho-hum, gentle and mild, church-is-boring, way we have settled into this Christianity thing. 

Lent starts in another week and a half. We do well to remember that the reason Mark rips through the beginning of Jesus’ story is because he wants to take us to the cross. The event that reshapes all of human history doesn’t happen along the quaint Galilean shore, it’s in Jerusalem — bloody and passionate — and there, oddly enough, Mark slows down to bring our work-a-day world to a stop.

So every day with Jesus isn’t like the one described in Mark 1:21-39. But they all contain the same elements:

For: 
February 4, 2018
Mark 1:29-39
Epiphany 5
"They were amazed by Jesus, because he taught with authority"

Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to those he left behind so that they might have his authority to go into this hurting world and be compassionate. Anyone who knows Jesus can be “an authority” by simply choosing to love the people around them without compromise.

For: 
January 28, 2018
Mark 1:21-28
Matthew 5:21-32
Epiphany 4

Jesus calls people to follow him. I am always amazed that the first people he called “left everything.” I put myself in their sandals and say, “I wouldn’t follow Jesus today, because it snowed three inches overnight and I have to shovel us out first.” Peter and James may not have had snow, but they had fish to be taken to market, nets to be mended, elderly parents, households to take care of, etc. Looking closely at the story (Mark 1:14-20), I see that John the Baptist had already prepared these people. When we listen to Jesus, our hearts have already been prepared by the scriptures we have learned, the people who lived as Christians before us, the dark traumas of our own lives when God was our only help and consolation. These things are in our past, Jesus is before us, do we follow him?

When people follow him they join up for the same experience the first disciples had:

  1. They become a part of a small group working together to know Jesus. Think the Hobbit. Think of the tightest team you’ve ever been a part of — I ran cross-country and had a very close relationship with the guys on my high school team the year before I became a Christian. If you follow Jesus, he will call you to be a part of a small group.
  2. Hands on experience of helping people. Jesus didn’t ask people to give money to a mission project. He asked people to follow him and do as he did as he met the needs of people. 
  3. A journey to the cross. Lent is coming. Will you follow Jesus more intentionally this year, even if it put some of what you value now at risk? 
For: 
January 21, 2018
Mark 1:14-20
Epiphany 3

John wants to tell us what he found remarkable about Jesus (John 1:43-51). He tells us that Jesus was the invisible word that God used to make the universe, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?” John then tells us how John the Baptist pointed people to Jesus, and we say, “Yes, but how is that relevant to me?”  Then John gets right down to it. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. Andrew brings his brother to meet Jesus. Jesus says to Peter, “I know you.” Phillip bring Nathaniel to Jesus. Jesus immediately makes Nathaniel aware that he really knows him well, even though they have never physically met. Now it’s your turn. You are brought to Jesus. And he says, “I know you.” Then you discover that Jesus is the teacher that you need right now. If you choose to walk with Jesus, you will discover that Jesus knows you better than you know yourself.

There is an anonymous saying, possibly originating in eastern mysticism, which says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” These words speak to how we learn things. The process by which we make those quantum leaps in our lives, involves two things; first, our own inner maturity developing to a certain point, and second, an intervention by someone else who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

None of the first disciples were really looking for Jesus when they found him. True, Nathaniel seems to have been very religious and searching for something. Until he came to this moment though, he didn’t know enough to know that he needed Jesus. When he was ready, though, Jesus came to him. Jesus became his teacher. He became a disciple, someone who is ready to learn.

For: 
January 14, 2018
John 1:43-51
Psalm 139
Epiphany 2

Some people take a long time to get to the point. The Bible takes ten words to get to it. Ten words and we are told that before God spoke the “Word” the earth was a formless nothing. All of creation was face-less. Nothing had any distinction. It was dark. It was meaningless. Total entropy — physics speak for everything being without information, chaotic, and at its lowest energy state. Goo. The pits. 

I’m glad not to have known it. When we have trauma. When we lose a loved one. When our hopes are dashed. When the doctor says “cancer” or “terminal.” We visit the outer most edge of this hell. But God’s spirit has already hovered over this void. The creator came to know the total accumulation of everything that depresses us. It was dark. God said, “Let there be light.”

This is how the Bible begins. It doesn’t begin with an argument against evolution. It begins by telling us that there was once such a deep hopelessness that there could never be anything. God acted. He spoke into being the complexity of creation. I suspect that God used evolution, for Darwin tells us that this process enables there to be diversity. Life is bent on filling every niche. It is bent on being good, because this is what God spoke into existence. 

When we lack purpose in life, here’s the point. In less than ten words the Bible can restore our sense of wonder and hope. I’m glad to have known that.

When bad things happen to us, we poke our minds outside of the created order that God has gifted us with, and for a moment, feel the pre-existent void. We don’t have to stay there. It, however, gives us a new perspective. From this darkness, we can be creative.

For: 
January 7, 2018
Genesis 1:1-5
Epiphany 1

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