Sunday, February 25, 2018

Yes but... (Mark 8:31-38)

Mark Twain worried, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Todays Gospel reading is Hard.  Todays gospel reading even the participants in the reading find it hard to understand.  Todays gospel reading is full of dark clouds and dark corners and creepy music, todays Gospel story is the part where we close our eyes and plug our ears because its not the story we want to hear. in…

“Mark 8:29 Simon Peter has tumbled to the truth about his teacher: “You are the Messiah.” Whatever glorious aspirations the Twelve associated with that honorific, Jesus shuts them down (8:30): epitemesen, a verb used elsewhere in Mark for silencing unclean spirits and savage forces (1:23; 3:12; 4:39). In 8:31 Jesus shifts to what the Son of the Man must endure by the hands “the elders” (senior lay leaders), “the chief priests” (cultic officials), and “the scribes” (authorities on scriptural tradition). Their modern counterparts are the church’s own lay leaders, tall-steeple preachers, and biblical scholars. To what will the establishment subject Jesus? Rejection, suffering, and death. After the full measure of this fatal disgrace has been exacted, he will rise again after three days. None of this is accidental: The Son of Man must (dei) undergo it by God’s design.”[1]

I love this, here is what is happening just before this reading Jesus asks, “but who do you say I am?’ and Peter blurts out “you are the Messiah” and Jesus says Shut up! Shut up your going to spoil the ending! Now Jesus doesn’t just say Shut up! but he says it with all the Authority vested in him that causes the very demons to be quiet. He then goes on to tell them where he is headed and exactly what he is headed for. Yikes we do not want to hear that.  our fingers go in our ears and we start to sing nanananana.

Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him to Shut up! The exact words Jesus just used on him for announcing the game plan before the game is finished. Then Jesus not only tells him to shut up but names Peters voice as the voice of the dissenter, the Voice of the denier, the voice one could even say of the rational. And names it Satan and tells him to step back!

C. Clifton Black states; “The stakes are so high that he addresses Peter as “Satan,” the tempter (1:12) and thief of the preached word (4:15). Peter is the only figure in Mark whom Jesus addresses so vehemently. Why? “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33b). Peter has arrogated to himself an authority that is not his to wield and is, in fact, devilish. This is no gentlemanly disagreement. Mark dramatizes a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical.”[2]

Then Jesus says to all who are around his disciples and followers come on gather round I have something to say…Now if you want to follow me… Stop giving yourself anything and everything you want or believe you need and take up your cross…. Wait what???  I can honestly say that I am sure no one here understands or comprehends the imagery being evoked here. The Harper Collins study bible has one note here… “Cross, an instrument of torturous execution” (page 1739) You can believe everyone there knew exactly how the cross worked, what happened to someone before they picked one up and what was waiting for them at the end of their destination.  No one wants to take up a cross! The idea is horrific. If a cross looked more like the terrifying machine on the cover of our bulletins perhaps then this passage would not pass before us so easily…so quickly.

The commentator states “Then Jesus opens his teaching beyond the Twelve to the overhearing crowd (including us): “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). Self-denial implies taking one’s stand “on the side of God, [not] of men” (Revised Standard Version [RSV]). To take up the cross is neither pious sentiment nor temporary disappointment. Crucifixion was the most humiliating, torturous execution the Romans could devise. Cicero decried it: “There is no fitting word that can possibly describe a deed so horrible” (Against Verres). The cross is Jesus’ destination (15:12-39). There his followers must follow him.”[3]

Self-denial implies taking ones stand “on the side of God.”  This means taking the focus ourselves.  This means going deep within ourselves and stepping out of the way to let Jesus in, to make Jesus the center of ourselves. No need to worry about tomorrow, no need to worry about yesterday.  We need to be present to God with us, Emmanuel, and how we are called to answer that spirit in our lives.  How are we called to get beyond ourselves and live as Christ is calling us to live?

To give one’s life up for the sake of the Gospel…for the sake of the good news is to surrender to the concept that Gods kingdom is at hand here and now and we can either do our best to participate in it or go without. Actually, in this Gospel reading Jesus is saying you can have the big house, the fancy car, you can have everything you want but where does that leave you … Just wanting more and in the end what have you gained…Jesus asks what it gains a person to… to have everything yet in the end it is really nothing.

If you have had a chance to listen to or speak with those who survived the recent fires or any recent tragedy.  The immediate reaction is we have our lives we have our family and our friends. The things do not matter so much and often what people grieve losing are the photos. Those evidence of life lived, and people loved.  Our lives our not the old game of he with the most toys wins no it is how we love that matters and with Christ as our center how we love guides us to live in that kingdom of God that is at hand.

Another commentator puts it this way Jesus is comparing God values with human values ; “According to human values, one's own life comes first. We might be kind and generous and thoughtful toward others, yet cultural norms dictate the priority of our own safety or privilege or physical comfort. Jesus advocates risking your life for the sake of another. In other words, be willing to lose your life for the sake of the Gospel in order to save it.

According to Mark's gospel, the disciples represent human values.2 They aspire to power and greatness and assume that Jesus shares these values. Jesus represents God's values, best summed up by the willingness to risk one's own life for the sake of others. Jesus does not encourage suffering for its own sake, nor does he recommend acceptance of forced servitude. 3 The key to meaning here is "for the sake of the gospel" and Jesus is the exemplary model. Jesus invites his disciples to follow his example, to be willing to risk our lives for the sake of others.”[4]

I can’t help but think of the events in florid last week. “Football coach Aaron Feis threw himself in front of students as bullets hailed down Wednesday at his alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida…."He died the same way he lived -- he put himself second," Lehtio said. "He was a very kind soul, a very nice man. He died a hero."[5]

When you hear his students talk it wasn’t just about this one act this man always put others first. He helped kids stay in school he would listen and counsel he would go out of his way to defend a kid in trouble and help them find their way to graduation. I don’t know what this man’s faith was and it doesn’t matter for I see in him the example Jesus is asking of his followers.  One person said of the coach “He was fond of the sports saying that “the last play is the best play,” … “And that’s exactly what he did. He made his last play his best play.”[6]

Can you imagine what this world would be like if we all lived as such.  What if we could imagine a world that was better because we, the humans, were no longer the center of our own individual attention?

Jesus puts out in front of us and the disciples the great master plan.  One of pain and suffering and one of Resurrection.  A miracle where death is conquered, and life is sustained a new and miraculous life. Here we are called to move away from our self-centeredness and reach beyond our selves.

Today’s accompanying reading from the old testament is the story of Abraham and Sarah the reason I mention this is that last week we spoke of our God of Covenant and the old testament carries on that promise of a covenanted God that mirrors Jesus’ foretelling, today both events seem impossible and yet.

“as the story goes, God has more faith, more resilience, more confidence in a possible future than does Abraham or Sarah.  Then, inexplicably, this yearned-for, unexpected, desperately wanted baby is born, not of normal human circumstance, but of the power and the fidelity of God. This birth is an event defying explanation, resisting reason. Abraham, Sarah and all of us are thrown back from reason and understanding to the more elemental response of wonder, astonishment, amazement, gratitude, praise, and laughter.”[7]

The old testament reading kind of brings up almost the Christmas story.  Our reaction is the same and yet now this is juxtaposed against the prediction of the ultimate miracle, the resurrection, and what is the reaction to that…Shut up!

Walter Brueggemann explains this event eloquently as is sets up a history of covenant and miracles that is truly cultural to Israel… “From that moment on, Israel lives by the inexplicable that evokes gratitude. What Israel sees of God’s oddness is not craziness, but powerful faithfulness which can keep promises against all odds. Biblical faith is grounded in Gods capacity to keep promises. In that moment Israel comes to know everything that needs to be known about God and about the world around us. We live in a world of surplus surprises that out run our capacity to control or predict or explain.”[8]

Yet in a moment before our Gospel reading Peter has a glimpse, or should we say he remembers the world in which Israel lives as he proclaims Jesus the messiah. Shut up!  And yet he seems to forget it just as quickly as he said it for in one moment he is living in the promise to Israel and in the next moment he is living in his self-centered humanness.

Paul in his letter to the Romans recalls todays stories and Proclaims a God who “Gives life to the dead. Calls into existence into existence things that do not exist.” Romans 4:17” Through the infant born in the old testament to Jesus born in Bethlehem to todays Gospel we know a God who has made outrageous promises of well-being for all time to come. It is Israel, Peter and the disciples and the whole Church who own that.  Who are called to live into this! And yet so many times we break down to our human centeredness and become Peter pulling God aside and saying, “hold on now!” Shut up!

Walter Bruggeman explains it this way;

“There is thus a dialogue set up in our faith. One voice says, "Can you imagine!" The other voice answers, "Yes, but." Abraham, old, almost cynical Abraham was filled with "Yes, but." Yes, but I am very old. Yes, but she is not pregnant. Yes, but we only have Ishmael. It is the naked voice of the gospel that counters his tiredness. Can you imagine a new son born right then? Can you imagine a covenant kept to countless generations to come? Can you imagine land given to landless people? Not: can you implement it, can you plan it, can you achieve it? -only: can you entrust possibilities to God that go beyond your own capacity for control and fabrication?”[9]

Can you let go of your self-centeredness, can you deny yourself to allow The Possibilities of a God who can raise the dead and call into existence what has never existed. This is the God of Israel.   This is God manifest here on earth and yet…?

“The New Testament is not different. The people around Jesus are filled with the grudging hesitance of "yes, but." Jesus comes and says; can you imagine a dinner for all? Can you imagine a blind boy to see? Can you imagine a prodigal welcomed home? Can you imagine a Pharisee reborn into childlike Innocence? Can you imagine lepers healed, widows cared for, poor made first-class citizens? Of course, it was judged impossible, but Jesus ran powerfully ahead of such fear.”[10]

Isn’t that what Jesus was asking the disciples to do, asking Peter to do? Aren’t we being asked to get beyond our human centeredness where fear and doubt take root and run ahead of that fear?

“In our day, today, "Yes, but" is powerful and usually wins. "Yes, but" makes sober, prudent, competent. But it can also drive us to despair, fatigue, Cynicism, and even brutality. If you can imagine a baby born to such a failed family,”[11]

Can you imagine a world of Old people fully cared for? Yes, but, consider the costs and the overwhelming statistics?

Can you imagine a Latin America unencumbered by imperial domination? Yes, but don’t we know what’s best for the world?

Can you imagine a nuclear free world? Yes, but they must disarm first!

Can you Imagine a new world of food for all?  Yes, but that means we might have to give more than others!

Can you imagine a world of true equality?  Yes but…


“The list goes on, because Israel's lyrical imagination is free and unquenchable. God brings into existence that which does not exist. Did you know that the word create is never used with a human subject?  We may "make" or “Form” or “fabricate," but only God creates, only God works a genuine new possibility, a thing beyond our expectations and our extrapolations.  It belongs to the mystery and holiness of God to call to be that which is not yet, because this is God's world, the world is not, (controlled) either by our hopes or our fears.”[12]

Todays gospel and the stories that accompany it are powerful for they contain all the Possibilities of God.  Within us we contain all the possibilities of God.  It is all about moving beyond the Yes but, its all about moving beyond the Shut up! Its all about getting past our self-centeredness. “if someone wants to follow me let them deny themselves…”

It reminds me of a hymn I have heard and every now and then pull up on you tube it’s called Trading my sorrow by Darrell Evans

“I'm trading my sorrow

I'm trading my shame

I'm laying them down for the joy of the Lord

I'm trading my sickness

I'm trading my pain

I'm laying them down for the joy of the Lord


And we say yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord


Though the sorrow may last for the night

His joy comes with the morning”

If we can get past all our yes buts, deny ourselves and just say yes lord this world would become Gods Kingdom…

We do all of this through continuing our Lenten practices building our relationship with God so we know and recognize when God calls and through prayer we can drop the yes but, we can leave behind the shut up, and we never need ask who me?? And just say yes! I can go where you lead, I can answer your call, I can deny myself and make you lord the center. Amen!

[1] C. Clifton Black, Commentary on Mark 8:31-38, February 25, 2018, accessed February 24, 2018,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Marilyn Salmon, Commentary 8:30-38, March 4, 2012, accessed February 24, 2018,
[5] Amir Vera, A football coach who shielded students from the Florida shooter died as he lived -- by putting himself second, February 15, 2018, accessed February 24, 2018,
[6] willa Frej, Cherished Football Coach Died Shielding Students From Bullets In Florida Shooting, February 15, 2018, accessed February 24, 2018,
[7] Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 10.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 11.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 11.
[12] Ibid.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Re-focus God Loves you (Mark 1:9-15)

As I prepared todays sermon the first though that struck me was we just read this Gospel a few weeks ago.  The second thing that hit me was No one wants to reflect on this reading in the context of the first Sunday of lent because we just read this Gospel a few weeks ago.   Many of the commentaries want to reflect upon the story of Noah which is the old testament reading for today.

Genesis 9:8-17 The Message (MSG)

8-11 Then God spoke to Noah and his sons: “I’m setting up my covenant with you including your children who will come after you, along with everything alive around you—birds, farm animals, wild animals—that came out of the ship with you. I’m setting up my covenant with you that never again will everything living be destroyed by floodwaters; no, never again will a flood destroy the Earth.”

12-16 God continued, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and everything living around you and everyone living after you. I’m putting my rainbow in the clouds, a sign of the covenant between me and the Earth. From now on, when I form a cloud over the Earth and the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll remember my covenant between me and you and everything living, that never again will floodwaters destroy all life. When the rainbow appears in the cloud, I’ll see it and remember the eternal covenant between God and everything living, every last living creature on Earth.”

17 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I’ve set up between me and everything living on the Earth.”

Reverend Kathryn Mathews who has retired after serving as the Chaplain of Armistead chapel reflects

One might think that our theme for this First Sunday in Lent would be something like "We Keep Sinning," or "Why We Need to Repent," instead of the tender claim that "God Loves Us."[1]

Many people would look at this as a time to reflect on our brokenness or how we may have turned our back on God or all our faults.  But what if we look at our relationship with God as we understand it Today?

We, the United Church of Christ, proclaim an all loving, Creator God who calls us children and knows each one of us before we are even formed in the womb.  We believe in a God who walks with us in our time of despair and dances with us in our time of Joy. We believe and proclaim God Loves us. Isn’t that a great way to sum up the Lenten season?  As we do our best to improve our personal relationship with God.  God is always waiting for us and ready to engage us if we seek God out.

“Yes, we know that the story of Noah has a lot to do with God judging humankind and finding it wanting--very, very wanting, so much so that God decides on a do-over (would our technological culture say a "reboot"?) of creation itself, back when water and land had been separated and new life brought forth. In the larger story of Noah … God chooses one man and his family, establishing a new Adam and a fresh start for humanity (and, once again, telling humanity to "be fruitful and multiply"). God begins the story again, with this offer, this gift, of the very first covenant between God and humankind.”[2]

The story of Noah is a horrible story.  It is a story of anger, sin and destruction.  Yet it is also a story of redemption.  This is the story of God’s own redemption.  Did you ever hear we are created in they image of God?  Did you ever get so angry you just wanted to knock everything down and maybe you did but then the regret lies heavy?  We often regret our own impulses and, in this case, well God kind of does just that.  Right?

God sees this destruction and mess that comes out of anger and makes a promise.  God makes a covenant.  To never take out all living things again. God makes a covenant and that should ring a bell in a few ears, especially if you are UCC for we are a covenant people.

God makes a covenant with Noah before he gets on the Ark and ;

“God fills out that first slim covenant, going far beyond the rescue of Noah and his descendants but also ‘with every living creature…all future generations…” and even ‘between me and the Earth’ to these all, god promises an ever lasting Covenant.’ God even places the rainbow as a Divine Post-it note to remind God of the Promise. This covenant is purely God-Initiated and God Committed.  Nothing is asked or demanded of Noah or the earth creatures or of the earth itself.  This is Purely God’s covenantal promise.”[3]

God late makes a covenant with Abraham and that covenant is passed on to Isaac

In exodus 2:24 hearing the cries of the enslaved Israelites God “remembered his Covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and delivered them.

The story of covenant and how bad Kings and people are at keeping them are woven throughout the Hebrew writings and then when we move into the new testament well…

“the very title “testament” for the two parts of Christian scripture witnesses to the importance of the notion of covenant in our scriptural tradition.  When the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek, the translators chose to translate berith (The Hebrew word for covenant) with the Greek word diattheke, which means literally “will” or Testament, to indicate that covenant is always about Gods’ initiative and will. Then when the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, diatheke became testamentum and scriptures became known as Old and New Testaments – or old and new Covenants.”[4]

As Christians we are covenanted to God, as a congregation we are covenanted to one another, as a church we hold covenants with our local Golden gate association and with the conference and then with the denomination. Whether you realize it or not we are covenanted people, and this goes way beyond scripture.  But that first and primary covenant of God to all creation, that first time when God looked back upon Gods wrath and makes a covenant never to destroy all life by a flood again truly moves me because it tells us that God can be moved and often is moved as we hear again and again throughout the scriptures.

God Loves us, God is moved for and by us

“And yet, and yet...we are especially prone, in the church, to concentrate on what we are doing or failing to do (right) in our relationship with God or, for that matter, what we are doing (or not doing) in the world. We don't focus so much on the primary actor in the long story of faith: God. (Perhaps this is because we, deep down, think that everything really is up to us?) This one episode in that story is a dramatic example of God at the center of things: God is the One who speaks, acts and, one might even say, feels. God is actually the one who "turns away" from a path (the thing we're supposed to do during Lent when we "repent") and makes a promise never again to destroy humankind and the earth with a flood.”

Even more so one thing to remember is we did not cause God to turn from this action this covenant comes from the heart of God, if you will, God makes a covenant and continues to covenant with life.

“Indeed, this week's text is about remembering and reminding, and about relationship. It is about a covenant, a promise. Apparently, even God needs to be reminded, in this case by a beautiful bow (ironically, an ancient weapon) in the sky, of a promise God makes out of tenderness and compassion.”

“So what do we learn about God--and what God is about--in this story? William Loyd Allen describes a God who is "adaptable, touched to the heart by creation, and willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive." God refuses to give up on us, Allen says, because "God's heart is touched by creation's suffering. The God declaring this covenant is not an objective judge meting out a just sentence, but a lover grieved to the heart at the beloved's violence, yet still seeking reconciliation (6:6, 8:21). Readers will find divine regret throughout this covenant, but will look in vain for anger" (Feasting on the Word Year B Vol. 2). Thus, our theme: God Loves Us.”[5]

It is with that theme of God loves us that we enter lent marked by the beginning of the New Testament, the new covenant, and we open with Jesus baptism

“In a few swift strokes of the pen Mark sets the stage for all that is to come. Our attention is focused precisely on the man Jesus and the message he brings. This clearing away of extraneous detail, this forcing our attention on Jesus is just what Lent can be about for believers who are too absorbed in their own projects to focus for themselves. Mark's opening verses invite us to re-focus in Lent.”[6]

We are to turn our focus back to our relationship with God as it is manifested in the life, the life and sayings of Jesus. This invitation to refocus comes in Jesus own words; "repent and believe in the gospel." “We might translate these familiar words "re-focus and trust the good news." Mark leaves us in no doubt about the good news that Jesus calls upon his hearers to trust.”[7]

Last week we were told too listen to Jesus this week Jesus is reassured by God that he is beloved and God is pleased. One commentator points out this about Marks gospel

“First it is specifically "good news about God." And that news is all about timing: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand." Both verbs (is fulfilled/is at hand) are in the perfect tense. Something has already happened and the implications of that happening are emerging in "those days," the very same days referred to in verse 9. The time is ripe, and the kingdom has come near. No wonder Mark's gospel is marked by brevity. His message is urgent -- no time to spend on unnecessary words.”[8]

If we look and listen to Mark closely we can find ways to move away from the old concept of Easter and Lent as a time of sadness, deprivation and sorrow.

“The time before Easter has long been associated with penitent self-abnegation. That befits Jesus’ preparation for his own sacrifice, to be detailed in coming Sundays. Along the way, however, the church has sometimes extended Passion Week into six weeks of mourning and has confused surrender with easy self-deprivation (“giving up chocolate for Lent”).

Mark points us in a different direction. “The time is fulfilled” (1:15a). This time is not chronos, measured by calendar or clock. It is kairos -- a time of critical decision: not every day, but D-Day (Ezekiel 7:12; Dan 7:22; Gal 4:4; Ephesians 1:10; Revelation 1:3b). This kairos is filled to fullness: the cup has been topped up, its contents brimming to overflow. Lent is to Easter as Advent is to Christmas: God has set the kingdom into motion, which will soon go into turbo-drive. As with Advent, so also with Lent: the suitable response is to “repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15b).”[9]

This explains Marks urgency and brevity.  The time is now, God Kindom is at hand. Jesus is reassured by Gods love and then Hurled out into the wilderness he is tempted by Satan…but we need not worry ourselves about the details at least mark doesn’t think so.  He does give us a quick glimpse into the kingdom. He was with the wild beasts, now for any listener at this time with images of the garden of Eden would pop up because this is the only time man was supposedly safe among the wild beasts. Then with the added imagery that he was waited upon by angels is just top mark the awareness that this is truly a man of God.  The son of God!

“Jesus’ experience in the wild, out in a boundary setting at the threshold between civilization and untamed places, is supposed to capture our imagination. Served or protected by angels, Jesus is “with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13). Just what’s going on out there in the wilderness?

“Our answer will depend on what other biblical texts we have in view.

One perspective says that Mark evokes hopes of a restored or new creation coming into being. If the wild beasts pose no threat to Jesus, if he sleeps with his head on a lion’s back and with a Komodo dragon alongside him for warmth, then creation -- at least this outpost within it -- has been transformed. It is (again?) at peace with itself. Through Jesus, as a result of victories he will win over powers of chaos and destruction, harmony will come to earth.

may tell about a transformed creation made harmonious, or it may hold out the promise of keeping at bay all the still-dangerous elements of creation. In either case, the imagery contains a sense of reconfigured boundaries. Old rules and expectations no longer apply in the same way when Jesus is present. Other passages will confirm this with respect to religious practices (e.g., Mark 2:18-22), and Jesus’ healings will repeatedly confound our sense of what’s possible. The empty tomb in Mark 16 will make this point even more forcefully.”[10]

Professor Matt Skinner tells us that ;

“Jesus’ focus is temporal, not spatial. That is, he announces the dawn of a new era and a new state of affairs, one in which God rules; with the expression kingdom of God he does not speak of taking people away to a new place in a far-off land. He tells those who listen that God is bringing new realities into existence; Jesus himself demonstrates what these realities look like through his actions and words.

This “reign” is about more than people’s spiritual existence. Jesus will call people to new understandings about what all of life is like. Family, society, political allegiances, economics, wellness, purity and acceptability -- no facet of life remains unaddressed.”

Jesus message and is that God loves up. And that Love calls us to a higher way of being as God’s kingdom is at hand!  To this day we are still, as a people, learning and discovering what that means, how we need to treat each other and what we need to do to continue to be Gods children living in Gods love and letting that relationship of us to God be expressed in our love and care for each other and all of God’s creation.

As we set out on our Lenten journey, what lesson, and what comfort and strength, do we draw from this story? How do we see ourselves as creatures dependent on God's goodness and grace? How will we allow ourselves to be changed by the promises of God, unfolding in our lives and in the life of all creation?

This is for you to discover and answer I will warn you if you are actively seeking out that deeper relationship with God during the Lenten season. You will probably end up with more questions than answers.  But often that is the way a good relationship with the loving God works.  Amen.

[2] ibid
[3] ibid

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Listen to Him (Mark 9:2-9)

MaryAnn McKibben Dana tells of going to a conference once and seeing this statement written on the wall. The statement is; “when the system doesn't know what to do, it does what it knows when a system doesn't know what to do, it does what it knows.”  Now what this is talking about is a technical term for any group of people.  When a corporation doesn’t know what to do it will do what it knows…when a family doesn’t know what to do it will do what it knows and that can be whittled down to when a person doesn’t know what to do they will do what they know.

“when we don't know what to do. When we are faced with uncertainty, when we have a number of good options, but no clear way of deciding or when we are fearful about the future or about change, we will revert to what we know, what is comfortable and familiar. Sometimes that's a good thing to orient ourselves somewhere familiar, but we need to be aware that that's what we're doing because sometimes it's not a good thing to follow the old pattern.”[1]

It is hard to break old habits and or sometimes its just easier to do what we know as the saying goes why try to reinvent the wheel or if it isn’t broke don’t fix it.  We are creatures of habit.

“Mark's transfiguration story stands as a transition between the Sundays of Epiphany, with the progressive revelation of the power and presence of the good news of God's kingdom in this Jesus, and the season of Lent, with its progressive focus on the journey of Jesus to suffering and the cross. This is where this story will take us.”[2]

In today’s Gospel The disciples are led up to the mountain and then they experience something just beyond comprehension. This story is rich in imagery there is a high mountain there are clouds there is Moses and Elijah.  So much going on it is mind boggling. We hear this story every year on this day and yet, and yet no one seems to know what to do with it.

Commentators want to dive into the old testament symbolism, others want to point out that Peter is still a clumsy thick-headed man who just doesn’t get it and still more want to project some headier than conceivable mysticism on top of it all. Let me just say this…ugh it is exhausting.

So, let’s start simply, gently with the story.

Jesus took Peter, James and John they go to the mountain top.  Most likely Mount Hermon. Just six days before Jesus had spoken to them of his death and resurrection and now he takes these three up to the mountain where he is transfigured.

“Peter and the disciples have just witnessed something completely other worldly. It's so strange. This transfiguration business that even the explanations seemed downright bizarre. We have this comparison to laundry. Jesus has the whitest whites, what is the secret? Or we have descriptions that seem right out of the TV show glee, Jesus is dazzling.

Peter Surveys this scene, mouth agape and is terrified because he doesn't know what to say. He doesn't know what to do, but does that stop him from speaking? Certainly not. Let's build dwellings he blurts out because when a person doesn't know what to do, a person does what he knows and building dwellings. Pitching tents is part of Peter's vocabulary as a Jew. It was part of his story. Remember that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years pitching their tents as they went and the Ark of the Covenant which housed the Ten Commandments, was placed in a special tent called a tabernacle. In the time of Solomon that tent became a more grand and permanent structure. The festival of Sukkot is a Jewish holiday in which people build small dwellings for worship, even eating and sleeping in them. Sometimes when something amazing happens, when God makes an appearance, if you're a Jew currently, chances are you're going to want to build a tent.”[3]

With that in mind I cannot help but wonder what we would do.  Cynically we may question what was in the water we just drank?  What kind of Hallucination is this?  More likely we would be scared, awestruck, and beat a path down the mountain side as quickly as possible and choose not to discuss it or even admit that we saw anything.

“Sadly, Peter has been beaten up in sermons on this text for centuries. Clueless Peter, who wants to put God in a box, stupid peter who wants to stay up on the mountain forever where it doesn't say that he wants to stay up on the mountain forever. In fact, as anyone who's been on a mountain knows, you can't stay long. The weather changes fast and you are vulnerable up there. Peter isn’t saying, let's move in. Peter is responding liturgically, worshipfully out of the story that he knows best. His own story as a good an observant Jew. When we don't know what to do, we do what we know. But God is a god who disrupts what we know. As quickly as Jesus is transfigured before them, God drops in a cloud just as quickly and says, OK, never mind. Stop looking at the scene. This isn't about dazzling visions. What I want you to do is listen, listen to him. Don't build, don't talk, don't do anything. Just listen when you don't know what to do.”[4]

Just Listen.  OK. (Silence)…. Just as I was writing this at this very spot a thought came to me…We are Children of God, right? How many here have children, human or otherwise?  How well do they listen?  How well do they follow every instruction?

Just think on that for a moment we are children of God…How often has God told us to listen? “let he who has ears appears in the bible 7 times. How well do we listen?  Do we even know how to listen? Spiritual practices are the best way to listen to God and yet often we do not take the time or make the effort to engage in a spiritual life.  For many Sunday is enough

Marcus Borg, observes that there is a lack of spiritual practice. “The notion that God is a reality who can be known (and not simply believed in) has become quite foreign in the modern world and in much modern theology. Often there is even uncertainty about the reality of God. In skeptical form, it leads to a vison of Christianity as primarily “ethics.” In most generic form, the Christian way of life becomes “being Good,” “being Nice,” “loving people.” In the strong form, it can become a passion for justice. But whether in generic or strong form, living the Christian life is seen basically as being about behavior in the world. But Christian practice historically is about our relationship to both God and neighbor, about both Spirit and behavior, about both God and the world.”[5]

Now Borg does go on to point out that there is a renewal in north America to recover practice as the center of Christian life.   He explains what he means by practice

“By practice I mean all things that Christians do together and individually as a way of paying attention to God.  They include being part of a Christian community, as church, a taking part in its life together as a community. They include worship, Christian formation, collective deeds of hospitality and compassion, and being nourished by Christian community. They include devotional disciplines, especially prayer and spending time with the Bible. And they include loving what God loves through the practice of compassion and justice in the world.”[6]

As the united Church of Christ, we are really Good at the latter part I mean even denominationally our current campaign speaks to that.  # Great Loves a just world for all. This is the denomination’s opportunity to express how our Love of Neighbor, Love of Children and Love of Creation work together to address the inequities in our current world.

Yet without Spiritual practices, without a way to listen to God, with out a way to just Listen we would never know that this is what we are called to address.  We would never have the energy to address it.  With out spiritual practice and prayerful listening this …this service would never come together.

So how do we listen to Jesus today?  How do we listen to God? We hear and see examples of how to be in the world through the Gospels.  We know of ways to communicate and listen to God through praying the psalms.  We have seen examples of monks and nuns who through their daily practice, the everyday and the mundane can be lifted into and become a spiritual practice. There is lectio Divina a practice of reading and listening to the scripture contemplatively. Of course, there is the contemplative practice itself.

Thomas Merton believes that “Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason and

beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire,

by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete. Yet contemplation is not vision because it sees "without seeing" and knows "without knowing." It is a more profound depth of faith, a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images, in words, or even in clear concepts. It can be suggested by words, by symbols, but in the very moment of trying to indicate what it knows the contemplative mind takes back what it has said and denies what it has affirmed. For in contemplation we know by "unknowing." Or, better, we know beyond all knowing or "unknowing."[7]

Oops just got all spiritual and out there but really if we take thomas Merton’s words and put in God it may be a bit clearer … “Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of [God]. It knows [God], obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes both beyond reason…”

I think that is what happened to Peter James and John.  The realty of Jesus’ absolute divinity is seen, and the voice of God is heard. They experienced this reality of God in the world in a brief and most sacred moment.  No wonder Peter was flustered.

C. Clifton Black professor of biblical theology at Princeton observes

“For the first and only time in Mark, the voice from heaven orders Jesus’ disciples. This command recollects Moses’ directive: Israel should heed a prophet whom the LORD God would raise up (Deuteronomy 18:15). In Jesus, God has done this; Israel’s successors should respond appropriately. To what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention? Presumably, everything in Mark that Jesus says and does. Immediately it refers to God’s design for the Son of Man’s suffering and vindication (Mark 8:31), the adoption of cross-bearing discipleship (8:34-35), keeping mum about what has been seen until after the resurrection (9:9), and assurance that all proceeds according to the divine plan (9:11-13). These are the very things that his disciples find so hard to understand, to accept, and to obey (9:31-34; 10:32-37; 14:26-31, 50, 66-72; 16:1-8). As suddenly as it struck, the mountaintop vision fades: a handful of disciples are alone with Jesus (9:8).”[8]

What should we contemplate to start?  What should we pay attention to how about “everything in Mark that Jesus says and does.”  For the Lenten season what if one just took on mark as a contemplative practice.  Lectio Divina, it is a good way to start a contemplative practice.  It is a good way to listen to God through Christ and see what is just being said to you.

“Lectio Divina (Latin for "Divine Reading") is a traditional Benedictine practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and to increase the knowledge of God's Word. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the Living Word.

Traditionally, Lectio Divina has four separate steps: read; meditate; pray; contemplate. First a passage of Scripture is read, then its meaning is reflected upon. This is followed by prayer and contemplation on the Word of God.

The focus of Lectio Divina is not a theological analysis of biblical passages but viewing them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, given Jesus' statement in John 14:27: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you", an analytical approach would focus on the reason for the statement during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. In Lectio Divina, however, the practitioner "enters" and shares the peace of Christ rather than "dissecting" it. In some Christian teachings, this form of meditative prayer leads to an increased knowledge of Christ.”[9]

In Lectio Divina many people believe the first step is to read the scripture but actually the first step is to still oneself.  A group I use to go to always started with be still and know that I am God.  Lighting a candle, one begins “be still and know that I am God” and then there is stillness. Be still and know that I am. And there is stillness…Be still and know…and there is still ness be still and there is stillness…be… (offer quiet time)   after the time of silence the passage is read and we listen but not with our ears but with our hearts. There are moments of silence as it is read about three times often by a different reader every time and perhaps a different translation every time so one can hear it the way each one needs too. This becomes less a practice of reading and more of listening to the inner message of the Scripture delivered through the Holy Spirit.

In between each reading is the time when one meditates or ponders the scripture. The scripture is held lightly and gently considered from various angles. Again, the emphasis is not on analysis of the passage but to keep the mind open and allow the Holy Spirit to inspire a meaning for it.

Another part or the 3rd movement of lectio is prayer. “In the Christian tradition, prayer is understood as dialogue with God, that is, as loving conversation with God who has invited us into an embrace. The constitution Dei verbum which endorsed Lectio Divina for the general public, as well as in monastic settings, quoted Saint Ambrose on the importance of prayer in conjunction with Scripture reading and stated: And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for "we speak to God when we pray; we hear God when we read the divine saying.”[10]

The fourth movement is the contemplation or holding silence and experience God’s love I always say it is like lowering your spirit into a warm quite bath of God’s spirit.

With Ash Wednesday we enter the season of lent it is a good time to seek out and develop some spiritual practices.  Also, if you do not have one you may want to seek out and try a spiritual director at this time a spiritual companion to walk with you on this spiritual journey. All this so that we may Listen to Jesus and prepare to meet the resurrected Christ in all his radiant Glory.

[5] The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg page 188
[6] Borg 189
[7] Thomas Merton  The new seeds of contemplation, pages 1-2

Sunday, February 4, 2018

and she was serving them (Mark 1:29-39)

Ok we have been off and running with Mark.  I remind you there is an urgency in marks Gospel we have gone from John Baptizing in the desert to Jesus being baptized Jesus goes out into the wilderness right after wards “and immediately the spirit hurls him out into the desert” John 1:12 where he prayed and fasted for forty days.

Then Jesus comes to Galilee proclaiming the good news; “The Right-Time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near.” John 1:14 and then going along the sea calls four disciples then goes to the synagogue and he teaches, with authority, and they are amazed and then a demon cries out and he rebukes the spirit.

They leave and “immediately coming out of the synagogue they enter the house of Simon and Andrew with James and John.  This Gospel moves fast there is a lot of coming and going.  Events happen fast!

The exorcism occurred in a synagogue, a more public setting than this private home. The exorcism involved a man; now Jesus will deliver a woman. Mark does not suggest the woman’s ailment is demonic, but we shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of a fever, either; in a world without antibiotics, her condition may prove fatal, depending on the circumstances”

Mark hints here at that Jesus ministry is wide ranged and meant for many. But there is something about this healing that is unnerving.  Especially when viewed in these modern times.

“Why is the healed woman’s first response to serve Jesus and his four disciples? When we learn that “serve” translates diakoneo, most likely indicating food service, and means she “waited on” them, it doesn’t help. Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he made sandwiches this time?”

Yes, many preachers in breathless attempts Have tried to explain away the discomfort, or to ignore this detail altogether and yet that little detail matters.

One way it is explained is that it means only to indicate that the woman was fully healed at once. What a miracle -- no recuperation period needed!

“Or: yes, she served the men, but her service was a way of showing respect and gratitude to her healer. Maybe she was also serving God as a means of doing so. Jesus always commends humble service and describes himself as one who came to serve (diakoneo; 10:45) -- what a faithful response!”

Note this is even better because Jesus used the same word to describe his ministry.

“Yes, the explanations continue, in that culture it would have been shameful for a woman in a household to neglect a guest. To feed Jesus would have honored him, but it would also have restored the woman’s own honor and dignity. Healed, she could do what her society expected her to do and what her fever had prevented her from doing. She was set free!”

“All of these responses are true, but they still exacerbate the frustration generated by this aspect of Mark 1:31. The woman’s appropriate response is to serve? Appropriate in whose eyes? Wouldn’t true healing and liberation allow her to take on other roles? After all, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead in John 11, Lazarus doesn’t respond with service. He reclines at a dinner table in John 12:2 while his sister Martha “serves” (diakoneo). Jesus’ healing of the mother-in-law and the miracle’s outcome remain indelibly gendered, and gendered in ways that veer too close to the stereotypes we know to be tired and destructive.”

“Simon Peter's mother-in-law "served" immediately after having been raised. The verb( now this is very important) is diakoneo, the same verb Jesus uses to describe the essence of his own ministry in Mark 10:45. It is "to serve" rather than "to be served" that characterizes the Christ of God. It is also "to serve" that characterizes his disciples. Simon Peter's mother-in-law is far from being an exemplar of a pathetic, un-liberated woman for whom serving men is her whole life. Rather she is the first character in Mark's gospel who exemplifies true discipleship. (Side bar: it will be women who are described as having served Jesus in 15:41 as well. This is not a verb used of Jesus' male disciples who famously do not quite "get it" within the gospel itself.)”

It is at the very end of marks Gospel we are let in on a secret. The secret that the crowd of Jesus’ regular disciples includes more than twelve men. We learn about the group of women who watched Jesus’ execution “from a distance” whater that means .  I mean all the others had left only the women remain. (14:50) and Simon was last seen weeping in a courtyard (14:72). Now not all of these women are named, so we know little about them. Still, we learn that they “provided for [Jesus] when he was in Galilee.” The verb the NRSV translates as “provided for” in 15:41? It’s diakoneo. To Serve, perhaps Simon’s mother-in-law is among the serving women who observe the crucifixion.

“If she’s among them, then she’s more than a cook, waiter, and dishwasher. She’s also a follower.

If she’s a follower, and a follower who is willing to serve as she goes (unlike the oafish James and John in 10:35-45), then she’s also a disciple.

If she’s a disciple, then to her “has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11).”

The Church has a sad history of overlooking, disparaging or simply burying the role woman have played in it’s history. Back in 2003 three the United Church of Christ happily celebrated 150 years of women Clergy.  150 years Really??  I am not sure that is something to be proud of.

“The date was Sept. 15, 1853. On that day a woman named Antoinette Brown, at the age of 28, was ordained in a small Congregational Church in South Butler, N.Y. Brown received her theological education at Oberlin College in Ohio, the first college to affirm coeducation. She was a well-known lecturer on temperance and the abolition of slavery.

Brown's ordination caused little national controversy, because the polity of Congregationalism empowers local churches, supported by nearby congregations, to call and ordain their pastors. At her ordination a progressive Wesleyan Methodist preacher named Luther Lee entitled his sermon "A Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel." He used Joel 2:28, as quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts. "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy." He insisted that the church does not "make a minister," rather God calls ministers, and the churches under the "Lordship of Jesus Christ" gather to celebrate that fact.

Unfortunately, Brown's ministry in South Butler was short. After a few years she resigned due to ill health and doctrinal doubts. In 1856 she married Samuel C. Blackwell, the brother of Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, early women physicians. She raised a large family, but remained intellectually and theologically active, writing many books on philosophy and science. After her family was grown she returned to active ministry as a Unitarian.

In 1889, over 30 years after her ordination, there were only four ordained Congregational women listed in the annual Congregational Yearbook. By 1899, that number had risen to 49. In 1920, a commission on the status of clergywomen in Congregationalism reported that there were 67 ordained women out of 5,695 clergy. It took until the 1970s before these small percentages made dramatic increases.”

At the end of 2016 9897 ordained ministers 4997were women…more than half.  I would say that this probably reflects more truth to the nature of the early ministry of the church than many men or historians care to admit.

“Historians Gary Macy, Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek have identified documented instances of ordained women in the Early Church. And Paul's letter to the Romans, written in the first century AD, mentions a woman deacon:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.— Rom 16:1, “

Unfortunatly this practiced phased out with the Final condemnation happening  in “AD 494, in response to reports that women were serving at the altar in the south of Italy, Pope Gelasius I wrote a letter condemning female participation in the celebration of the Eucharist, a role he felt was reserved for men.”

Today the call for equal pay for equal work, the me-too movement, all stand as upright and just calls that have been ignored for too long.

 I believe we need to lift up our heroines and saints who have been ignored for too long.  Mary the Magdalene, the desert Mothers and Julian of Norwich have so much to teach us. We need to pay more attention to Indira Gandhi, Rosa parks and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. How many have read call me Malaia as a young girl she called for education in her country for which the Taliban tried to silence her for. Has anyone sought out the work of Lynn Gilbert who back in the 80’s wrote Particular Passions women who shaped our times.

Women have always been called to serve and not in the submissive form but in the active form as Christ was called to serve.  Today as Peters mother in law is honored to be the first to answer that call, Diokoneo, that call to serve as Christ served. I pray we can each answer that call as Boldly as many women have in the past and still are today. 

I pray that the day comes when we as people serve as those who came before, who served in spite of oppression, who served in spite of be written out of history, who served even though their service was taken for granite. Today we lift up all who serve but I am especially lifting up our women because we do not do it enough so thank you each and every one of you for your service. Amen.