Thursday, April 20, 2017

Seeds, Soil, and Sailing


Mark 4 really begins Jesus' teaching ministry.  He teaches in parables, illustrative stories set in a familiar context that point to another reality.  Jesus uses the language of seed and soil to teach about the kingdom of God.  From the indiscriminate scattering of seeds to the way seeds take root, emerge, and grow Jesus invites us to see God's activity in the world as a natural reality within and around us.  He also teaches that there is a kind of hidden aspect to God's activity.  It is not always overt, obvious, and clear that God is the active agent behind the good life.  Jesus' teachings are meant to shine light, to reveal what God is doing in the world.  Some will be given the ability to see, others will not.  We might wonder why some have faith and some don't.  We might wonder why God is obtuse or hidden from us. 
In the parable of the sower, Jesus suggests that the seed is scattered indiscriminately.  Only a quarter of the soil is good soil that receives the seed and produces.  Most of the soil is not good soil.  It's rocky or weedy.  Some of the soil isn't even tilled land, it's a path!  The point is that God, the sower, is not a good farmer. He scatters seed, even where it is not received or accepted.  There is no judgment on the "bad soil" and we ought not to think literally about the application of this story.  We are tempted to think of the different soils as categories of the human heart or mind.  And then we judge who is "good soil" and who is "bad soil".  Not Jesus' point.  Even in Jesus' interpretation of the parable that he gives to the disciples, he is not passing a judgment on those who do not receive the Word.  God sows lavishly, excessively, and foolishly in the world.  We are recipients.  Sometimes we're ready. Sometimes we're not.   What do you think God is sowing in the world?  I think God sows peace and mercy.
The two parables of the seed scatterer and the mustard seed show us that God's activity does not depend on our intervention or work.  There is mystery about some of the things tht God does.  God's activity is often subtle, missed, small, seemingly insignificant.  But what God starts, grows and becomes something large and significant.  Church started with a small group of students, following a 1st century Jewish Rabbi.  Now there are over two billion Christians in the world.  How did a movement so vulnerable and insignificant become something so important to so many people? 
Finally, the parable of the boat on the sea. Is this a literal event?  Or a teaching moment? Or both?  Jesus teaches his disciple that faith is the absence of fear.  It is peace in the middle of chaos, rest in the middle of life's storms.  Jesus is in the boat with us.  He signifies God's peaceful presence with us in the midst of life's turmoil and dangers.  To have faith is to trust that God cares that we are all perishing, enough to show up and take action! 
So, how do we begin to see with the eyes of faith, to trust that God is in the boat with us, and to receive what God is sowing into our lives, into the world?  How do we recognize the activity of God around and within us?  How do we become aware of the presence, protection, provision, and peace of God in daily life?  This is the art of discipleship.  To become aware.  To wonder about the soil of my own life.  What obstacles, barriers, trouble is preventing God's word of life from penetrating my life? 

Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word.  When I am afraid, drive my fear away.  When I am in need, provide for me and protect me.  When I am uncertain of your presence and activity in my life, awaken my inner senses to know you are near me.  Amen.     


Mark 4

Mark 4

Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret* of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
   and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”
 And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.* And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
 He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’
 He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Questions for reflection:

What do you think Jesus meant by "the kingdom of God"?
Why does Jesus teach with parables? 
What do the disciples learn from Jesus on the sea? 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Opposition and Family. Mark 3


As Jesus' public ministry builds momentum, we see two things happen.  We see opponents resisting Jesus' teachings and we see a core group of twelve students coalesce around him.  These 12 disciples are also apostles.  They are both gathered around him as learners and sent from him as practitioners.  The learning model is an apprenticeship, action/reflection model.  He expects more from them than belief or faith.  He expects them to act---to do what he does, not just know what he knows.  His teachings are often examples.  When he heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day, he defies the letter of the law that prohibits work of any kind.  But, he redefines the spirit of Sabbath by asking, "Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it?"  Who would suggest that  God's law permits one to destroy or do harm?  Jesus suggests that to do nothing is tantamount to doing harm or destruction.  So, he acts.  He sees that we create barriers that prevent people from getting access to health care.  By healing the man he calls these barriers unjust.  Whenever a leader publicly challenges systems of injustice, those who benefit from that system (and someone always does) become angry.  We haven't even gotten through the 3rd chapter and already people are plotting against him! 

We see a variety of opponents.  Jewish leaders.  Demons.  Jesus' family members.  His teaching practice is confrontational and controversial.  He is upsetting the status quo by healing people!  We can say that following Jesus will create opposition or resistance.  Why?  People hate change.  And people are invested in maintaining their own comfort, sometimes at the expense of others.  Jesus threatens the delicate imbalance that exists between the people at the top and the people at the bottom.  Jesus crosses boundaries, norms, and rules that define place.  The man with the withered hand was considered cursed by God.  It was assumed that some moral failure caused God to punish him.  So if Jesus healed him, he must be working for God's opponent---Beelzebul.  We see Jesus as a divine healer.  But they saw Jesus using demonic powers to oppose God.  That is why Jesus quotes Abraham Lincoln (a house divided against itself cannot stand).  Jesus sees the withered hand as a work of the devil not of a punishing God.  Jesus has a perspective on the human condition that says evil is at work in the world and it is not God's doing!  He has been sent by God to confront the evil forces at work in the human family by healing those who are suffering.           

Jesus redefines the family, too.  Who is his family?  Those who do the will of the Father.  And what is that?  We look at Jesus to understand the will of God, assuming that he demonstrates it in his actions.  So, we might say the will of God is a reorienting baptism and time of wilderness trial; a public announcement about the coming of the reign or kingdom of God, works of healing and mercy.  Jesus will continue to show us what God's will looks like in action.  He will continue to redefine family.  Beyond blood and ancestry.  God's family is bigger than Israel. This is a major theme and a massive shift that Jesus proposes about God.  God may not look like, sound like, or think like us!  God may not be male or white or English-speaking or American, either.  Wait and see what happens in chapter four...

Monday, April 10, 2017

Opposition and Family


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

 Jesus departed with his disciples to the lake, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.
 He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles,* to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. So he appointed the twelve:* Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters* are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

Reflection:  Who opposes Jesus?  Why? 
What is the emerging conflict in the story?
Some people suggest that there is something wrong with him.  Why?
Jesus calls 12 disciples/apostles to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message.  Why?
What do you think about the way Jesus describes 'his family'?   

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Paralysis and Freedom

In Mark 2, Jesus is showing his people a new kind of freedom.  As he forgives sins, eats with sinners, and breaks the Sabbath day law.  Why does Jesus do these things?

Paralysis is not only caused by a spinal cord injury.  Many things paralyze us, prevent us from getting up and doing what we are made to do.  The people were paralyzed by moral religion and the rules.  They were paralyzed by internalized oppression and fear of the Roman army.  There was (and still is) a great deal of judgment, shaming, and hypocrisy going on in the religious community.  Sinners are law breakers, offenders, rule breakers, wrong doers.  Sometimes people are treated as criminals and not as human beings.  People are seen as 'bad' or 'dangerous' or 'offensive'.  They are treated as subhuman, untouchable, lost losers.  Minorities know what it is like to be abused to the point of paralysis, afraid to go out in public or to stand up for one's self. 
People are still paralyzed by abusers of power, by fear, by guilt or shame, by vulnerabilities, inadequacies, and perceived incompetence.  People are paralyzed by their own egos, their own need to be above the rest, their need to succeed.  The stress caused by these things is unhealthy.  Some people are even physically disabled by these spiritual, mental/emotional struggles.  I wonder if this person was depressed? Or grieving?  Or in pain?  Empathy never dismisses or ignores the other, but invites them in for healing and hope.  
Jesus sees people as children in need of forgiveness, so that we can stand up and live.    
I think the four friends who bring the paralyzed person to Jesus represent the mission of the church.  We are called to bring people to Jesus, who are paralyzed by shame, guilt, grief, anger, mistrust, fear, etc... 
Jesus represents the God who gives us freedom.  We are freed from the power of sin, telling us we are bad, broken, and worthless.  We are freed from judgment and condemnation--God's or other's.  We are free to be the person God made us to be, to exercise that freedom to become children
n of God and coworkers in the ongoing stewardship (act of love) of creation.  We are invited to stand up with those who are oppressed and broken, threatened and afraid.  We are challenged to confront hypocrisy and moral condescension.  We are invited to enjoy the fruit of the earth and to share it abundantly with those who need it the most, every day.  Nothing should prevent us from thriving or helping others to thrive in God's world.       

What paralyzes you these days? 
How do yo hear Jesus' message of forgiveness?  Does it free you to be your created self? 


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mark 2. Paralysis and Freedom

Mark 2
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people* came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic— ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’

 Jesus* went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
 And as he sat at dinner* in Levi’s* house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting* with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of* the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat* with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people* came and said to him, ‘Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
 ‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.’*
 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Reflection Questions:

With whom does Jesus engage?
What are Jesus' core teachings in this passage?
Where is the trouble or conflict in the story?
How do you feel about Jesus' actions and words?  About those who question him? 


the alternative empire

As we read the Gospel of Mark, a perspective drawn from historical context is important.  We may want to define the narrative to understand its meaning.  A gospel is a good news story. in the 1st century world, the Romans sent out messengers (evangelists) to share the good news of Roman expansion, military conquest, and Casesar's unyielding power.  Caesar was called Lord and a son of god.
The gospels about Jesus of Nazareth, therefore, stood as an alternative narrative to the gospels of Caesar.  These stories were, in their first context, about a subversive reality in which the God of the Jews had chosen a servant named Jesus to lead a liberation movement.  This liberation movement was not fought with armed resistance against the imperial powers' military machine.  It was fought with Words (teaching) and acts of healing, as we will see.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, recognized as the first of the four gospels that are part of the New Testament, Mark lays out a story that stands against the Roman imperial story.
He uses language like "Son of God", and "Kingdom of God", and "baptism of repentance" and "forgiveness of sins".  The first two phrases place Jesus in conflict with the identity claims of Caesar.  There is the Kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of God.  They are not the same.  We will see the contrast in the gospel of Mark.  Jesus will teach that "the kingdom of God is like...", and this will reveal a very different use of power and authority. This is political language, addressing power and authority over people and land.  How does God's kingdom and chosen ruler differ from Caesar?  The other two phrases discuss how one converts from allegiance to one authority to the other.  How one rejects Caesar's dominion and accepts Jesus' or God's dominion.  Baptism is the personal act of the convert.  Forgiveness is the merciful acceptance offered by the Lord to the one pledging allegiance to him.  Condemnation and punishment for past transgressions against the ruler and the Kingdom are expunged.  The record is reset.  Therefore, the convert is received as a trustworthy and loyal subject, not as a betrayer or turncoat. 

Sins are defined as the ways in which we think and act contrary to the expectation, demands, or rules of the God or Lord.  Everything from breaking the law to personal offense; from stealing to lying; harming others or selfishly hoarding.  Sin is defined as a state or condition in opposition to what is good, right, or true--as defined by the ruler or God.  One can sin by omission or commission---by doing what one ought not to do or failing to do what one ought to do.   To sin against God was to disobey the commandments found in the Hebrew Torah (books of the law).  To sin against Caesar was to fail to pay taxes, fail to acknowledge Caesar's supremacy, stand against the military occupation (i.e., open rebellion). 

The Spirit identifies Jesus as the beloved son of God and sends him to be tested in the wilderness.  This Spirit is understood as an extension of God's self will.  It is the sustainer of life and breath.  It is a source of internal strength, forbearance, and power.  His survival in the wilderness prepares him for his mission/quest.  And what is the quest?
To reclaim sovereignty over the people and land from those that have taken it from him.  This land and this people were occupied, possessed by the Roman Empire through the use of military force. They used violent punishment to maintain control of conquered populations.  Jesus will use nonviolence and compassionate service.  The gospel of Mark is a collision, a confrontation between competing claims of power---Caesar's and God's.  This confrontation will create conflict and tension.  Someone will die.  Will the death be the end of the proposed alternative kingdom or the beginning of a movement?   

Driving out unclean spirits (exorcism) sets people free from the internalized oppression.  They have accommodated themselves to the powers of the empire that oppresses them.  That the first exorcism happens in the Capernaum synagogue suggests that the Galileean Jews have internalized their oppression, adapted to it, accepted it, and need to be released from it.  Their minds and hearts have learned to accept Caesar's lordship and Rome's dominance.  Jesus' teaching will free them from their bondage to Caesar's ways.  For Caesar's ways are destructive, selfish, and emphasize social control through punishment.  His ways are hierarchical and authoritarian.  He is at the top of the pyramid.  The majority are at the bottom.  Rome made use of middle men, people who were part of the oppressed majority who could be persuaded to serve the interests of Rome.  Tax collectors were part of this group. 
The other difference between Caesar and Jesus is that Caesar used propaganda to oppress the people.  The evangelists who brought the "good news" of Caesar's recent conquest subjugate the people, making them feel powerless against Caesar's army.  Jesus, on the other hand, insisted that those he conquered through healing (instead of through physical torture like Caesar) were prohibited from speaking.  He insisted on their silence.  This only encouraged them to share public testimony about him.  But they were not forced or coerced into telling the news, as part of a propaganda machine.  Jesus was not a candidate.  But the people he healed exercised the freedom to speak publicly about him.  Jesus initiated free speech that promoted his mission and stood in contrast to Caeasar's.
Jesus touched untouchable people.  Lepers.  These people stood outside of the community.  They were marginalized because of their disease, twice oppressed---by the Romans and the Jews.  To touch the leper was to infect one's self, to assign one's self to their status.  Jesus became a "leper" by touching a leper.  Jesus also exercised personal authority and power when he healed the leper.  In so doing, he disrupted the accepted status quo.  He rejected the person's assigned identity as a leper and restored his identity as a human, a person with value.  He restored dignity and potential. 

Why does this matter?  Imperialism persists.  The values and actions of empire continue to oppress and limit people.  In the U.S., the original sin of slavery developed a way of seeing people of color as inferior to whites.  This value persists in the form of systemic institutionalized racism.  Internalized oppression continues to challenge racial minorities, long mistreated with disrespect and various forms of violent controls---from Jim Crowe laws to mass incarceration.
Imperialism builds an economy that favors the few at the top and disfavors the few at the bottom, who must work the hard labor to maintain the empire while not benefiting from it.  In the first century world of Palestine, Herod the great used his middle-man status as a puppet rule for Rome to build cities and forts, temples and palaces.  The notion that employment was itself a benefit is part of the economic propaganda that was sold to the people.  Work will make you free is always the propaganda of the empire.  The Jewish God subverted these claims by enshrining in their national charter (the ten commandments) a Sabbath day, a weekly day of rest.  And in order to overcome the imperial claim that work brings economic freedom, the Jewish God established laws of Jubilee.  A 50 year forgiveness of all debts.  In fact, lending was prohibited.  Generosity, the offering of gifts to the poor, characterized Jewish economics found in the Torah law.  

Jesus taught an alternative political and economic system to the values of empire; one that offered freedom from oppression through punishment and healing from the wounds of marginalization and prejudice.  One that emphasized generosity and the sharing of resources/wealth.

Readers of the gospel of Mark might begin to recognize the marks of oppressive empire still at work.  We might also begin to see the proposed alternative laid out by Jesus of Nazareth as a viable way forward in human community. It is a proposed revolution, against the dominant culture's accepted status quo and the empire's logic of power by oppression.   

What questions emerge for you? 
Now on to Mark chapter 2.