Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mark 9. I believe. Help my unbelief

In Mark 9 we see Jesus teaching Peter, James, and John; Jesus teaching the 12 disciples; Jesus addressing crowds; Jesus personally engaging one family.  We hear the voice of God, a voice we have not heard since the 1st chapter and the baptism of Jesus;  We see Moses and Elijah on a mountain.  We hear Jesus speak about his death, about the power of humble service, and about threats against the human community.  Jesus mission is relational.  We see and hear, in this chapter, Jesus practicing UP, IN, and OUT.  He reveals some holy mysteries (resurrection) to his closest disciples.  He takes the three with him on a holy retreat, where he is seen in the presence of Moses and Elijah, liberator/ lawgiver, prophet/healer. Jesus transcends them both as son of God. It is on the mountain that Jesus' relationship with God the Father is reiterated.  That experience changed him and Peter!  They had an epiphany, a moment of clarity and identity that will shape the rest of their life together.
It was certainly a Kairos moment for Peter. So significant that he wanted to capture it and prevent it from coming to an end.  Nevertheless, Kairos moments end.  We don't get to stay "on the mountain",  and life in the trenches continues.  
We learn that prayer is sometimes the only effective work one can do to confront forces of opposition and resistance.  Jesus suggests here that the power to heal is God's alone and that we are often powerless to change other people.  This is good news.  We do not have to fear personal failure, only trust God.  Faith is honest, vulnerability before God.  Trusting in invisible powers of goodness, rather than our own willing attempts to do the right things .  We learn that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive.
Jesus navigates between crowds and personal needs.  He is not so distracted by the crowds that he cannot see and hear one suffering father.  He is mission focused.  He listens.  He acts.  How many people are not helped or healed by Jesus?  More than he actually, personally helps or heals.  
Jesus offers up core teachings about discipleship, too.  Its not about achievement or greatness.  Its about service.  Its about hospitality and welcome.  And its about doing justice by showing mercy toward those who are suffering.  In fact, Jesus boldly says that if you are not against him, you are for him.  What might this mean?  Even indifferent or ambivalent onlookers who don't stand in the way of justice are part of Jesus' mission team.  An agnostic physician is indirectly on Jesus' side.  Secular nonprofits that feed the hungry are on Jesus' side, even though they do not express their mission religiously or spiritually.  This is freeing for us. There may be a lot of people outside of 'the church' who are not opposed to our mission, may even contribute to it.  Jesus says, let them do what they do.
Jesus sees the mission of God as a big, grassroots movement of change that does not end.  We get to be part of it when and where we are.  We get to be merciful, to confront injustice, to pray against suffering and for healing.  We get to be part of Jesus' extended family on mission.  And we see allies in that mission in and outside the church.  How joyful to see God's work in the world, in places we may never go and with people we may never touch.  How freeing to trust and know that God is good.
Disciples are learning to balance UP, IN, and OUT like Jesus.  Disciples stand in the privileged place of having seen and heard Jesus.  And we are challenged to share that in our everyday lives.
Perhaps you will be part of a crowd this week.  But, will you see or hear the one person in need of your attention, your time, your compassion or help? You will, if you spend time abiding "on the mountain" with Jesus first.  Take a moment everyday to hear God speak. Listen to Jesus.  Maybe the word you will hear is this one:  "You are my beloved child.  I am pleased with you."


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Mark 9: I believe. Help my unbelief!

And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.’
 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’
 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. He asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’ He answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘This kind can come out only through prayer.’*

 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
 John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.*,* And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,  where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
 ‘For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?* Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’

Reflection questions:   Define power.  How do people use it?  What powers exist in the world that we are unable to control?  If you had the power to change something, what would that be?
What power does Jesus have and how does he use it?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mark 8. Deja vu all over again

Caesarea Philippi
Mark eight is the middle of the gospel story.  It is also a hinge or a turning point in the ministry of Jesus.
First, we see compassionate Jesus feeding a crowd of four thousand hungry people with a few loaves and fishes.  Again.  If this sounds familiar, its because Jesus performed a similar feeding miracle only a couple chapters earlier.  Did all this happen in the same week or month or year?  We don't know the exact timing, but we can assume that the disciples were present at both feedings.  Somehow they still don't understand Jesus' compassion power and its implications for those who are vulnerable.  Afterward, he travels on by boat.  Pharisees, the skeptical religious leaders, question Jesus' ministry. They demand a sign.  (What do you call two miraculous feedings of thousands of people?)  Jesus is frustrated with them.  He expects them to understand, to accept, to welcome him.  Instead he encounters resistance and ignorance.  The spiritual blindness of the disciples and the Pharisees (who just don't seem to see Jesus clearly) is embodied in a botched healing of a blind man.  It takes two attempts for Jesus to restore sight to the blind man.  Jesus spits in the man's eyes and all he sees are walking trees. A second attempt clears his vision.
High invitation/High challenge learning cultures create frustration.  Frustration is necessary for learning. Frustration reveals an emotional investment that is required to learn a new thing that challenges.  As a teacher, Jesus is emotionally invested in the learning community.  His teaching is demonstrative and he demonstrates more than once.  And he reflects with the disciples about the meaning of the action he takes.  He knows that consistency and practice are necessary for learning. And he is personally invested in them, spending time with them in the boat, going to engage in conversation with both Pharisees and disciples.
Jesus is invested in his followers.  He is invested in the well being of the crowds, too.  He is committed to those who are hungry.
The pivotal part of this chapter, however, comes in their journey to Caesarea Philippi.  In the mountains, north east of Capernaum, this little village was Roman.  A temple to the god pan is found there.  The Jordan River finds its beginnings there, flowing out of the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon.  They travel there, not to do ministry, but to reflect on the life of Jesus to this point. The first half of the gospel has been like going up a mountain, climbing, ascending.  His reputation grows, his powers to heal expand, his ministry multiples.  His reaching the summit.
He asks a central question for disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"  His reputation among others suggests that he is a prophet, a holy man, a representative of God.  Peter responds, "You are the Messiah (Christ, anointed one, long-promised King).  This revelation is subversive.  To announce Jesus' Messiahship is to pledge allegiance to a rebellion against Caesar and Rome:  In a Roman town named after Caesar!  Peter is bold in his response about Jesus.
Jesus began to teach them that the son of man must suffer and die and be raised.  And Peter rebukes him.  And Jesus rebukes Peter saying, "Get behind me Satan. Your mind is on human ways not God's ways." Peter goes from bold rebel aligned with King Jesus to Satanic opponent in a matter of minutes.  Why?  The threat of suffering and death enters into the story.
Jesus will surrender to the powers and political will of those who thrive on revenge, hate, and violence as means of control.  He will not save himself.  He will not use his power to protect himself. What we now realize, is that Jesus' movement is not a campaign to get elected to public office.  he does not do what he does for personal gain, recognition, or power.  He does not act out of self-interest.  He acts out of compassion for the vulnerable and out of devotion to God.
Finally, Jesus wants his disciples to know him and trust him.  He wants us to know him and trust him.  He wants to open our eyes to see his compassion at work.  He wants us to join him.  In the crowds.  In the boat.  In the mountains.  In the valleys.  Among the opposition and among the needy.
Where do you see Jesus?  What do you think of him?  What about his life is worth imitating?  What about his life challenges you?  Maybe it is the idea that someone so great, so powerful, so close to God should suffer and die.  Before the age of 40.  How could this be God's doing?  God's plan?  God's will?  How is Jesus' death accomplishing anything good?  Stay tuned...the story continues.  The descent begins.  Down he goes.  Will you go, too?    

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Mark 8. Who do you say that I am?

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.*
 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
 Now the disciples* had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’* They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’

 They came to Bethsaida. Some people* brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man* looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus* laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, ‘Do not even go into the village.’*

 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’* And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘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 what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Reflection Questions:

What do you think of Jesus?  What is he like?  How does he treat his disciples?  How does he relate to the other teachers and religious leaders (Pharisees)? 

Why does it take two tries to heal the blind man?  Why does Jesus feed a second crowd of 4,000 people after feeding a crowd of 5,000?

What does Jesus teach about his mission and future?  Why does he order their silence?  Why does he ask his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

Who is Jesus?   

Mark 7. Losing my Religion

The category, "spiritual but not religious" has been an emerging, growing trend among younger adults for about a decade now.  Much has been written about it and discussed.  Whole books have been dedicated to the subject. Just Google "Spiritual but not religious" to see what I mean.  The suggestion is that there is something wrong with organized religion, but that spirituality might define someone who is seeking a deeper connection with the invisible God.  We know that a deep skepticism toward institutions has infected the west, and that both government and the church have been affected by it.  Religion is about morality and rules that restrict and exclude.  Religion puts certain people on pedestals, only to have them abuse power by abusing the people they were called to serve.  Catholic priest sex scandals and evangelical pastors affairs merely confirmed what many westerners already thought of Christianity.  And we know from a recent Pew Research poll that about 25% of Americans consider themselves unaffiliated with any religious tradition or group.  They are called the "Nones", because of the category they checked next to their religious preference. 
What can we say about Jesus of Nazareth, 1st century Jewish Rabbi?  Though he worshiped in the synagogue, he flouted customs and rituals of purification specified in the Old Testament law.  he broke Sabbath law to heal the physically broken and to feed his hungry disciples.  Breaking cleanliness laws included association with notorious sinners---women, lepers, demon-possessed people, immoral men, the sick, and the disabled.  His contact with them and with the dead make him ritually unclean, according to Jewish law.  He became a religious outcast in order to be in community with religious outcasts.  His behavior excluded himself in order that he might include the excluded in his life and teaching.  He brought hope and healing from God to people who were told that God had rejected them.  He sees the hypocrisy of the religious elders in his community.  And he says that it is not what is outside a person that defiles, but what is in one's heart and mind. 
Jesus' own radical inclusion of religious outsiders is put to the test by a Syrophoenician woman---a gentile and former enemy of Israel.  (Think Lebanese woman).  Her daughter is demon-possessed.  (Must have been a teenager):) She challenges his reluctance to help her.  Why is he reluctant?  Because Jesus was raised within a context of prejudice and boundaries. Discrimination and segregation was a part of Jewish law, meant by God to demonstrate holiness, but used by people to divide and hate.  But his ministry of hospitality and inclusion expands over these 7 chapters of Mark. The circle of inclusion widens. This is the most radical inclusion scene yet.  A gentile woman whose daughter is demon-possessed.  This woman might as well be a Zombie!  And she is brave enough to challenge Jesus' prejudice and invite him into her suffering.  And he sees faith in her, faith enough to heal her daughter.  For Jesus, faith is not a religious category.  Being a Lutheran or a Christian or a jew does not make one faithful.  Faith is a relationship of trust between God and us. 
I think many people see Christianity as divisive, hateful, and prejudicial.  Moral issues divide Christians.  Homosexuality has been the moral issue of the last 30 years.  Jesus is silent about homosexuality.  But we cannot be.  Jesus abandons moral boundaries to walk in solidarity and love with marginalized people.  He looks at religious traditions that exclude as distortions of God's intentions.
"Spiritual but not religious" is a way that some people reject the prejudicial, exclusionary aspects of Christianity.  Unfortunately, they often throw the baby out with the bathwater.  How can we invite and challenge people back into gospel community, where the marginalized are welcome and all are loved back to life?  How do we embody Jesus' mission and embrace the "nones" or the "dones" (those who have left the church in protest)?  Perhaps we begin by examining and confessing our own prejudices or ways of excluding.  And then move toward authentic relationship one day and one person at a time. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mark 7. Losing My Religion

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,* thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;* and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.*) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live* according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God*)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’*
 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.* He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir,* even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus* ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Reflection Questions:

What were the exclusionary rules you learned as a child? What were you taught about gay people, the racial other, the mentally ill, law-breakers? 

Are there 'untouchables' in the U.S. today?  Who are they?  What are we taught about 'them'?  What keeps us away from 'them?'

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being very open and accepting, and 1 being very cautious and selective about others where do you put yourself? 

What does it mean to be open to new things, to diverse relationships?  How inclusive ought Christians to be?  Are there good reasons to exclude people? 

Jesus rejects conventional religious behaviors  What religious behaviors have you rejected?  Why?