Sunday, February 26 – Sermon on Mark 1(9-15)

Mark 1:9-15

Welcome to the first Sunday in Lent.  Those forty days that lead us to the crucifixion and to Easter.  Now being that I am new, I don’t know your traditions.  Do you give things up for Lent?  I usually try to give something up, but most years it is just like a New Year’s resolution – it doesn’t last long.  But this year, I am committed.  It is going to happen and none of you can tempt me out of it.  It may be extremely cliché, but yes, I have given up sweets for Lent.

Every year, the first Sunday in Lent includes a reading of the temptation story.  Today we just heard Mark’s version.  And it is quite fitting for those of us who have given something up.  We know that feeling of temptation to give in.  But notice that in Mark, we don’t just get the temptation story.  We also get Jesus’ baptism right before that and his first sermon afterwards.

What I love about the Gospel of Mark is it is so brief in it’s story telling.  It gives so few details.  But the details given are quite important.  For example, did you notice what happens to the heavens when Jesus is baptized?  “Just as Jesus was coming up and out of the waters, he saw the heavens torn apart.”  The heavens are torn open.  Now, I need a volunteer to help me with something.  (Volunteer and I tear a shirt in half).  Do you see what happens something is torn?  When something is torn open, it means you cannot easily put it back together.  And to be honest, why would you even want to try.   Now, if you read the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew or Luke, it simply says the heaven’s open.  Isn’t that nice.  They just open. Like a door.  It’s easy.  But anything that is simply opened is just as easily closed again.  But not in Mark’s story.  In Mark the heaven’s are torn apart.  The word in Greek is schizo.  Say it with me – schizo.  You can hear within the word the sharp, jagged, rough edges that tearing creates.   What does that mean?  Could it mean the veil between us and God has been torn open, never to be closed again?

But then, once the heaven’s are schizo’d, torn open, Jesus sees the spirit descend.  Our text says that it descended on him.  Like it is resting on his shoulder.  But the Greek word there can also be translated as into.   So the spirit of God does not simply rest on Jesus, it goes into him. It possess him. He becomes possessed by the spirit of God.  What we learn here is that through out Jesus’ life and death, he is carrying within him the Spirit of God.

Then Jesus hears the words of God, “You are my son. My beloved.”  These are claiming words.  These are words of affirmation.  Words of acceptance.  Words that tell Jesus who he is and to whom he belongs.  It’s like a parent wrapping there arms around their child and whispering in their ear, “I love you.  You will always be my child. No matter what.”  They are words that enter into your body and wrap themselves around your heart.  They claim you.  And that is what it means to be baptized.  To be baptized is to hear the promise that God has already claimed you.  You have been claimed.  You belong.   You are loved. You matter.

So Jesus has been claimed by God and possessed by the spirit of God and then what happens?  Jesus gets driven into the wilderness, thrown…tossed into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan for 40 days.   For 40 days he was tempted.  That number forty – it is an important number in scripture.  Rain fell for forty days and forty nights in the story of Noah and the ark.  Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments from God.  The Israelites, how many years were they wandering in the wilderness? Forty.  And now Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days.  The ancient Jews were a deeply symbolic people.  And numbers for them carried deep spiritual value for them.  So it means something here that Jesus was tempted for forty days.  Why that number? Why 40 days?  It must have been important.

And when you think about it, forty is an important number for us as well.  Typically, we have a forty-hour work week.  Every week, Ryan Seacrest (or in my day, Casey Kasem) gives us the American Top 40 songs in music.  In NFL scouting combine this weekend, we clock how fast someone can run the forty yard dash. And then now we have forty days of Lent.

So why was Jesus in the wilderness for forty days? While we live in a different world than the ancient Jews, there is a meaning to the number forty that we still share with those ancient Jews.  Forty is the number of weeks that a woman is pregnant.  Now I know, I am living in pregnancy world, so perhaps I am reading my own life into this, as Lauren and I count the weeks up to the number 40.  We are currently at 31.  But I don’t think so.  I don’t think I am reading into this.

Forty is the number of weeks that it takes for you to be birthed into the world.  The ancient Jews knew that, I think.  So could it be that the number forty, used in scripture, has something to do with being born, or reborn.  Maybe it has to do with finding new life in the midst of your current life.  One could say that the earth was reborn after the forty days of rain in Noah’s story.  For the Israelites, coming out of slavery and wandering in the wilderness for forty years was rebirth for their people.  They were going to start again in a new land and under new leadership.  They were not going to be an enslaved people anymore.  They were set free, birthed into new life.

So then, if that is true, could it be that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness is a time of gestation and growth, a time of preparation for rebirth into new life.  Preparation for his life of ministry that is ahead of him.

And if that is true, then could it be that Jesus’ baptism just before was then a moment of conception?  A moment when a seed is planted that then begins to grow?  Those words that Jesus hears, “You are my Son, my beloved.”  Could those be life-creating words?

So what are we to do with all of this?  Forty days in the wilderness for Jesus.  Forty days of Lent for us.  As we enter the Lenten season of forty days, perhaps you and I are invited to be rebirthed.  To let the old ways of life that have become destructive and disorienting fall away and to be rebirthed to live life in a new way.  To commit to a new way of being or a new way of relating to the world.  And maybe the only way for that to begin to grow within us, to discover a new way of living, is to remember those words spoken to us at our baptism.  To recall those life-creating words of God for us.  I realize not everyone here is baptized.  Which is why it is important to remember that in baptism we hear the promise that God has already claimed you.  Which means these life-creating words are for you too.  They are for all of us.  So hear them again now: you are enough for God.  You are valuable.  You matter to this world.  You have been claimed by God.  You belong and you are beloved.  Let that sink into you.  Let that be a seed that conceives and sprouts new life within you this Lenten season.  So that then you too might be rebirthed into this world, deciding to live life differently.  And so that then the spirit of God within you may lead you to confront those other voices.  Those wilderness and devilish voices that tempt you into believing that you are not loved.  That you do not matter.  That you are not enough.

Lent is a much deeper season than simply giving up sweets and chocolate.  I’m still going to do it but that is not the point.  It is a season that leads us to new life through death.  New life, rebirth, through hearing the claiming words that you belong to God and you are God’s beloved.  Words which then leads to the death of those destructive voices within our lives.  New life through death.  So what are the parts of your life God is wanting to be reborn?  Where is God wanting you to live differently? Where is God wanting to bring life into the world through you?  You’ll have to answer those questions yourself.  And answering them may feel like entering dark and deep waters for you, but you go well equipped.  Because the heavens have been torn open, never to be closed again.  And that descending Spirit of God, it has entered into you too.

AMEN

*I am grateful to Alan Storey (aslowwalk.org) for his sermon on Matthew 4:1-11 on March 13, 2011 and for his insights on the temptation story, which were used in this sermon.

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Ash Wednesday – Sermon on Psalm 51:1-17

Psalm 51:1-17

“For you have no delight in sacrifice, O God. If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As I am sure many of you are aware, two nights ago 4 young women were killed in a car accident near Minneapolis. I had heard about the accident that night, but it wasn’t until Tuesday morning, when a friend on Facebook posted a picture collage of the four girls that I realized the severity of what had happened. My heart broke, as I imagine many of yours did. I grieve for the families of these young women… for their anticipated futures now lost… for their friends and how their lives have been forever changed.

But then my heart broke a second time. I couldn’t see it at first, but as I scrolled down on the picture of these four young women, there was a phrase written at the bottom. “Heaven needed four beautiful angels. Rest in peace.” Heaven needed four beautiful angels. Heaven needed four beautiful? I just don’t buy it. You may disagree with me, and that’s okay. But for me, I just can’t believe it. I cannot believe that heaven needed something and those four girls and their families were the sacrifice to pay for it.

Now, I realize that when people say this, it is usually their own grief coming out. Someone with tear-streaked cheeks sat down at their computer and tried to give honor and a tribute to these women by creating a photo collage and writing these words. Why? Well probably because it felt like something had to be said. Maybe, they think, if there is a heavenly purpose, then this accident won’t seem so purposeless. If there can just be an answer, if there can be a reason, then maybe the world beneath our feet will stop shaking and we won’t have to be afraid anymore. But hidden underneath this statement, I think, is exactly that – a fear. An incredibly truthful fear that we all share – a fear about the trustworthiness of this world. Who is in control of this world? Is it God? If it isn’t God…then who is? And if God isn’t in control of this world…then why believe at all? Is there any purpose in this life, because if there isn’t….then why live at all? People make statements like “Heaven needed four beautiful angels,” because they want to make sense of that which seems so senseless. We don’t want a world that doesn’t make sense.

But if these are words meant to comfort, then why do they sting so much? It doesn’t sound like the truth to me and I desperately want someone to tell me the truth. I want someone to tell me that two nights ago four beloved children of God died and we don’t understand it. It probably had to do with the weather outside, some human error, and some randomness. But to turn this into a happy, angelic event in which heaven needed these girls…it betrays what happened to them. It betrays the tragedy of this event. It betrays the grief of their families and…it betrays the broken heart of God.

I don’t know about you, but whenever something like this happens, all it does is reveal my own broken spirit. It reveals my own inability to make sense of the world. That’s the truth, isn’t it? And so I wonder, can we just say that instead?

The psalmist says that the only thing we can bring before God, the only acceptable sacrifice to offer to God is our own broken spirit. And so can we be honest about that? Can we confess that tragedies like this break our spirit and call into question the trustworthiness of this world. Rather than saying, “Heaven needed four beautiful angels,” can we be honest with God saying, “Lord, I don’t know what to make of this accident. I want to say something but I don’t know what. Lord, I want to understand it, but I just can’t seem to and, instead, all I feel is fear for my own life and for the life of my loved ones. Is my life going to change that quickly?

Maybe it doesn’t stop there, just with tragedies. Maybe we lay before God the other parts of life that break our spirits. Our failures, our inadequacies as a parent, spouse, friend. The things we regret doing and the things we regret not doing. The masks we wear that tell everyone that everything is okay, when it’s not. Let’s just lay it all out there for God. Let’s offer to God our broken spirits.

Tonight is a perfect night to do it. Ash Wednesday, it is all about speaking the truth. It is about being honest with ourselves. Tonight, we will be marked with a cross of ashes on our forehead and that is the most honest thing we can do. It is a sign and a reminder that this life is fragile and death comes for all of us eventually. We are dust. And to dust we shall return. We know neither the day nor the hour. In this ritual, we bring before God our broken spirits. Because until we name them, until we name our need, then we have no need for God and God’s radical acceptance of us as we are. For when we confess the truth about ourselves, we confess that we cannot do this alone. If our spirit is to be mended, it will be mended by God. If fear and hopelessness is to be replaced with peace and wholeness, it will come from God. If we are to be forgiven for that which we have done or not done, it will be because God has forgiven them.

We know that the world shakes with uncertainty. This is the truth. We see it everyday. But, as one author once said, maybe the life of faith isn’t something that should answer all of our questions and make the ground stop shaking, but instead helps us to keep our footing in the midst of the tremors and gives us hope and courage as we try to answer life’s questions together.

Nowhere in Scripture does it say that the life of faith is easy. But throughout Scripture, we do hear how much love and concern God has for each and every one of you. That God wants you to be you; to lay out before God the truth about yourself. For it is this God, who is steadfast in love, who is made most visible in the life and death of Jesus, who is so committed to us that this God then chooses to love us, accept us, and care for us throughout our tattered lives. I don’t know about you, but that also sounds like truth. And it gives me steady feet in the midst of a trembling world. AMEN

Sunday, February 19, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 9:2-9

Mark 9:2-9

Jesus took with him Peter, 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 he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. Is this Scripture or a Clorox commercial?  What is going on here? You have to admit, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is kind of weird.

But it is this scene, for as strange as it is, that sits right in the middle of Mark’s gospel, and it operates as a time machine.  It offers a glimpse of the future that is to come.

Have you ever seen a movie or a television show that reveals the end of the story first?  In an episode of the tv comedy Modern Family, the show opens with a frantic scene in an emergency room.  Jay, the grandfather, rushes up to his son saying, “Do we know anything?”  Mitchell, his son, tells him that there is no news just yet, but that they are lucky.  The paramedics said it could have been a lot worse. Overwhelmed with fear and concern, Jay cries out, “My God, how did this even happen?!”  And before we, the audience, know who was injured or what ocurred, the scene ends.  Suddenly, the camera pans in on a house during beautiful sunny day and all it says across the screen is, “Six days earlier.”  The end is revealed at the beginning and the rest of the episode is spent putting together the pieces of the past six days, leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat, waiting to see how we will end up back in that emergency room, waiting to see how the past leads up to what we already know is in the future.

In this story of Jesus’ transfiguration, the disciples catch a glimpse into the future.  Jesus leads Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain -the place where so many before have encountered the presence of God.  Just when they reach the top, suddenly Jesus is lifted up.  His face changes; his clothes – they begin to radiate light.  Moses and Elijah, those great figures in God’s history, show up in the clouds.  And then the voice of God breaks through like it did at Jesus’ baptism, proclaiming, “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.”  This is a snapshot of the future, but it is not just any future.  It is God’s future.  It is a hoped for future in which the kingdom of God has come.  Where everything is engulfed in the light of God.  All suffering has been dissolved; every tear has been wiped away.  Upon seeing this future, all Peter wants to do, of course, is stay there.  Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, this is a good place to be.  Let’s just stay here.  We will put up some tents and we will make this our home.”

Which is how it is when you catch a glimpse of the future, isn’t it?  You want to go there immediately, without taking the path of life that leads you there.  When you are 14 years old, and you are sitting in the driver’s seat of the car parked in the driveway, you can almost see into the future, when it’s just you out on the highway with radio turned up.  And don’t you want to stay there?  Don’t you want that moment to come now, without all the classes and driver’s test you have to go through?  Or when you’re a year away from graduation, and you see some of your friends heading off into life with a diploma in hand.  You can almost see the day when that will be you, and don’t you just want to stay there?  To stay in that glimpse of the future, without going through the homework and graduation requirements?  Or maybe even when you or a loved one has received the hard news that death is not far off and it’s likely to be slow and painful.  You know the future; you can see it.  The time when death has come and pain has ended, and maybe there is a part of you that wishes to stay there, in that imagined future, without going through the painful process of dying?

But that, unfortunately, isn’t how life or stories work.  You cannot simply see into the future and then just stay there, skipping the road that leads to it.  The writers of Modern Family couldn’t have had the story stay in the emergency room, never telling us how it got there.  And Peter, James, and John cannot remain on this mountain top with Jesus either.  They must come down and live through their story which will bring them (and us) back to this future.

And the story will lead us back. Back to a mountain top.  But, perhaps, not as we think and not as we want. For the story of Jesus and his disciples is about to take a turn, and it is headed straight into Jerusalem.  On the way, Jesus heals those who are sick.  He blesses the children.  He will challenge the economic system where the rich get richer and the poor poorer.  He’ll open the eyes of the blind.  But finally, in Jerusalem, Jesus will come face to face with the powers of the day, those political tyrants who do not like it when their way of life is threatened by people like Jesus.

And then that glimpse into the future that we saw…it starts to come true. Jesus will climb a mountain.  But this time carrying a wood and nails.  Jesus will be lifted up.  But this time on a cross. Jesus’ face will be transfigured.  But this time by a crown of thorns, blood and bruises.  And even Jesus’ clothes will change.  But this time because they are torn off his body.

But we have already seen this future.  And so we can look with different eyes at Jesus on a hilltop, lifted up and nailed to a cross.  We know what this is. This isn’t the pitiful death of a poor peasant.  No.  Hidden within the suffering of Jesus on the cross is not just another example of human suffering; it is the suffering of God.  And it is the glory of God.  Of a God who so loves this world that it is worth dying for.  Hidden in the suffering of Jesus on the cross is the light of God shining throughout the world.  A dazzling white light, whiter than any bleach on earth could achieve. And that is a light in the midst of the greatest darkness.

Jesus took with him Peter, 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.  What is going on here?  It is a glimpse into the future.

Today, we see the future.  That one day, there will be light.  A light so bright that no darkness can overcome it.  A day when all suffering has dissolved; every tear has been wiped away.  But that day is not here yet.  And so we too must leave this place.  Like Peter, we cannot stay here.  We must come down the mountain and step into the suffering of the world, where the light seems hidden to so many.  As one preacher once put it, “We know that the future belongs to the Prince of Peace, and so we work for peace in a war-torn age.  We know that one day justice will roll down like waters, and we work for that justice, even though such labor is costly.  We have seen the risen Christ, and we know that in him the image of God in humanity has been restored.  Therefore, we work today for the poor, the outcast, and all others denied dignity in our age.”[1]  And we do all of this as a witness to the future that we have seen though it is not here yet.  But take heart, for the kingdom of God is near.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN

 


[1] Tom Long, Shepherds and Bathrobes, p. 103

Sunday, February 12, 2012 – The Problem with Miracles, a sermon on Mark 1:40-45

Mark 1:40-45

It is time. We cannot avoid it any more.  It is here.  It is time to talk about the elephant in the room.  But I wonder, do we even know that it’s here?  Or have we gotten so used to it, that we’ve found ways to maneuver around it without much disruption.  Have we forgotten about it, because life is easier that way.  It’s large and dangerous, hard to get our hands around, and perhaps better to avoid than look in the eye.  But it’s here and it’s time.  It’s time we talked about the problem with miracles.  In the last two weeks, we’ve heard many stories of Jesus healing people, removing their demons and curing their illnesses, and today we face yet another miracle story…one in which a man’s isolating, life-destroying, body-wilting disease is removed from him in a flash.

The problem with miracles is that most of us want them and few of us get them.  If one simply walks through our cemetery, the lack of miracles is apparent and the suffering of human life speaks for itself.  A headstone for a child just two years old.  A double headstone where one spouse died 40 years ago and the other lives on.  Imagine the prayers and prayers that must have been spoken for them.  Was anyone listening?  But to be honest we don’t even have to wander as far as the cemetery.  Just slide over to the person next to you or in the pew behind you and you spend all day hearing stories of life-long chronic pain, the grief of divorce, or just how lonely the winter nights can be.  “There is enough suffering in this room alone to freeze the blood[1].”  One doesn’t need to ask, “Where was God on September 11th, 2001?” when the same question bears as much weight on February 12th, 2012.

Which perhaps is what makes Jesus’ words in today’s text that more painful.  The leper says to Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Jesus, if you are willing, you can fix me.  And Jesus says, “I am willing.”

Jesus if you are willing then, why are you not willing now? Why not for the others whose bodies have betrayed them?  Why miracles here and not there?

Miracles and the problem with miracles collided a couple of weeks ago in California when a gravel truck struck a car carrying a young mother and her two children.  The car slammed into the side of the bridge they were on, only to stop on the edge, dangling for life.  Any attempt at rescuing the mother and her two girls was risky, causing the car to teeter and threatening to fall into the ravine below.  The prayers, the prayers. Can you imagine the prayers?  Jesus, if you are willing, you can save them.  And then…a miracle.  Along comes a US Navy convoy that just happened to be near by, and with them – a heavy-duty forklift with a telescoping arm, that could stabilize the car hanging from the bridge.  The mother and children were removed safely and with only minor injuries.  It was a miracle.  God saved that family, people said.  But can the same be said about the truck driver, whose cab went completely over the bridge and into the ravine, leaving him lifeless and his family heart-broken?  No.  Can you imagine the prayers?  “Lord, if you are willing, keep my husband safe today.” “Lord, if you are willing, protect my dad on the roads today.”  A miracle and the problem with miracles, all rolled into one event.

Of course there are potential answers for such pain and lack of miracles.  We all know them and have perhaps even said them.  “Everything happens for a reason.”  “God needed another angel.”  “It was simply his time, but God still has work for her to do here on earth.”  “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” “Miracles don’t exist.  Everything is just chance and dumb luck.”  Or worst of all, “They must not have had enough faith or prayed enough.”  All of us say such things with good intentions, but rarely do they provide any comfort.  Some responses paint us simply as puppets and God as the puppeteer; others imagine a world which God created and then left to its own devices, letting us figure it out.  Unless, of course, it gets really bad, in which God will stick God’s nose in just for a moment to set things straight.  And some simply make God into a cruel god who tests the faithfulness of God’s people, like a tyrant tests the loyalty of its slaves.  Rarely do these images of God provide any comfort.

Mark holds closely together three stories in which Jesus heals people from their afflictions.  For some of us that might affirm the power of God to heal that they have experienced in their own lives. But for others, it only highlights that which God has not healed.  So who is this God found in Jesus and is there anything that can be said? Is there any comfort to be found in this text?  Whatever we might say, the problem with miracles begs that we be slow to speak and not quick to answer.

Perhaps one place to begin is with the word miracle itself.  Buried within the word is this hidden assumption that God wasn’t already at work in the situation until the miracle came.  As if God only showed up on that bridge in California when the forklift did.  The word “miracle” assumes a God off in the distance, watching and waiting, until deciding to reach into this world with hands that save and hands that destroy.

But that is not the God found in Jesus.  The God found in Jesus abides and makes a home in this world, wandering into wilderness places with the broken, walking beside lakeshores and calling upon the fishermen to “Come and follow me,” entering places of worship and homes, touching and speaking to those no one else will, gathering together the hungry and feeding them.  This is not a god who intervenes, showing up intermittently, in this world; this is a god who lives in this world.

Another place to turn is to Jesus’ reaction to this leper.  Back when leprosy was more common, lepers were sent to leper colonies, where these gross and disfigured people would rot away together, and a safe distance from the masses.  They were quite literally the untouchables – ostracized and thrown out from their community.  As if having your skin reject you isn’t enough, your community rejects you as well.  Upon encountering this man with leprosy, the text says that Jesus was filled with compassion for him.  But some scholars think another possible translation is that Jesus was filled with anger.  Why would Jesus be angry?  Is it that Jesus is angry at this leper?  No, surely not.  But perhaps it is that Jesus is angry whenever someone suffers at all.

In the sermon preached just two weeks after his son’s death, William Sloane Coffin spoke to his congregation and this is what he said, “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”[2]

God hates suffering.  The suffering of God’s good creation breaks God’s heart.  Which is why with the suffering is where God chooses to be.  In rooms with the sick.  In colonies with the untouchables.  On boats with the terrified.  On a hillside with the hungry.  And on a cross with the thieves.

Why are some people pulled back from the edge of death and others not?  I have no idea.  Why do some seem to have all of the luck in life and while others can’t seem to walk a few steps without tripping over something?  I have no idea.  In the end, where does that leave us?  Certainly, the problem with miracles remains and indeed remains unsolved.  The ways and activity of God –  still a mystery.  But maybe just in naming the problem with miracles, the elephant in the room, we have found that thing we have kept bumping into but never knew was there.  And perhaps that can be healing in itself.

Let us pray…God, you do not jump in and out of this world, but instead have made it your home.  Your works in this world are not few, but many.  You go into dark places and you set your hand on the sickness of the world.  And so we trust that when you feel distant, you are not, and when we feel abandoned, we are not.  Have faith in us, when we struggle for faith in you.  AMEN


[1] Terence Fretheim, said during class on “God, Evil, and Suffering” at Luther Seminary.

[2] Sermon, “Alex’s Death” by William Sloane Coffin.

Sunday, February 5, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 1:29-39

Mark 1:29-39

Our story for today picks up where we left off last week – in fact, it is still the same day.  Last week, Jesus and his disciples were in a synagogue and the only person who recognized Jesus was a man who was possessed.  We look at what possesses us, and if we can recognize where God is in our life, wanting to tear out the negative things in our life that have a hold on us.  Today, we are going to talk about the moment after we’ve been set free from such thing, because Jesus is once again healing people and casting out demons.

In today’s story, Jesus and his disciples leave that synagogue and they go to the place where Simon and Andrew lived, and there in the house is Simon’s mother-in-law sick with a fever.  Jesus goes to her and takes her by the hand and lifts her up. He raises her up out of bed and then….her fever leaves her.  She is freed from her illness.  This fever had possessed her; it had a hold on her body.  All she could do was lie in bed.  Then Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up. And it left her.

I think, just like Simon’s mother-in-law, all of us have been taken by the hand and lifted up by God at some point.  All of us are here today for some reason or another.  Maybe you are here because it’s just what you are supposed to do.  But maybe you are here because you have encountered God in your life and you want to encounter that again.  I want you to talk with someone if you have ever felt that God has taken you by the hand and lifted you up.  Now let me be clear.  I know that we all have places in our life that hurt.  And right now, for some of us, those places are closer to the surface and so it can be hard to think about how God has lifted us up in the past, when we need to be lifted up right now.  With that said, I’d like you to consider a place or time in your life when you felt taken by the hand and lifted up by God.

(Discussion)

Now, I want to talk about what happens immediately after she is lifted up and healed. What does she do?  She serves the people of the household.  Now, let’s be clear, this is not about how women are meant to serve men.

For Simon’s mother-in-law, this was something way more more significant.  In that time, illness did not just impact your body.  It impacted your social standing.  Because she was sick with a fever, for who knows how long, not only was she not able to earn a living or contribute to the well-being of a household, but she couldn’t take her proper role in the community, to be honored as a valuable member of the community.[1] This isn’t to say that she was restored to servanthood, as if women are meant to be servants.  No, this is not what it’s saying.  Instead, she was restored to her calling.  It was her honor and her purpose to offer hospitality to the people in her home.  Her illness took that away from her.  Anyone who has lost a job, or been severely ill knows how painful it can be to feel like you have no purpose.  But now, in being healed, her calling has been restored.  When freed from that which possessed her, she was immediately moved to give back, to serve, through her place in the community.  She didn’t serve because she was indebted to Jesus; she served, she gave back, because she was grateful.  “Having the strength and capacity to serve others and care for them can be a great blessing.”[2]

I also think, just like Simon’s mother-in-law, all of us have something we can give, in response to having been lifted up. Each and everyone of us has gifts, strengths, resources, however big, small or ordinary, that offer a place, a purpose, a calling for us in the community.

In the movie Little Miss Sunshine, which is about a terribly dysfunctional family, Dwayne is an unhappy teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he can achieve his dream of becoming a test pilot in the Air Force.  At one point, the whole family is in their yellow VW van driving down the road, when Dwayne discovers that he is colorblind.  Which means he can never be a pilot.  At the thought of losing his dream, Dwayne starts to lose control.  His body is shaking in anger, he’s doing everything he cannot to break his vow of silence.  Eventually, the van pulls over, he jumps out into an open field, drops to his knees and just screams.  The first sounds out of his mouth in months.

His mom went and did what adults do, she tried to talk to him and fix it.  Let him know it wasn’t that bad.  This didn’t help the situation.  But then, in one of the best scenes in cinema I think, while the whole family is standing around trying to figure out what to do, Dwayne’s sweet and awkward 8-year old sister, Olive, starts walking over to him.  She’s tripping over the red cowboy boots, that are too big for her, the whole way to him.  When she reaches him, she stands over him looking, until she finally just squats down and lays her head on his shoulder – offering him her own momentary vow of silence.    Eventually, he turns and looks at her and then says just one word, “Okay……okay.”  And the two of them walk back to the van together.

In the moment, little awkward Olive had to give what no one else in the family had – a silent embrace.  And it was exactly what Dwayne needed.

One more story.  In 2006, two dolphins in China swallowed pieces of plastic in their aquarium.  The plastic caused the dolphins to be depressed and stop eating. Any attempts by the veterinarians to remove these plastic pieces had failed.  So the vets called upon the world’s tallest man, a 7 foot 9 inches Mongolian shepherd.  His arms were the only thing long enough to reach into the stomachs of the dolphins and safely remove these pieces of plastic.  He had the exact gift that was needed in that moment.

So now, I want you to speak with that same person about what gifts you have to give.  It could be as simple as saying you give good hugs or it could be as funny as saying you have surprisingly long arms.  Now, I’m not asking for ways in which you can simply be a “good, moral person.”  Anyone can be that. This is about the gifts that you have or have had to offer back to the community as a grateful response to the way’s God has lifted you up and cared for you.

(discussion)

Simon’s mother-in-law encountered Jesus, was lifted and, as a result, healed of her fever.  In grateful response she offered her gifts of hospitality.  We too have been taken by the hand of God and lifted up.  And we, too, each one of us, has unique and ordinary gifts that can be given in grateful response.  God loves us and so we love in return.  And the order is important. It isn’t that we love so that God will love us.  No. God loves us and so we love. AMEN.

Sunday, January 29th, 2012 – Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28

On a cold January day in 2007, a man wearing a t-shirt and a ball cap walked into a busy train station in Washington D.C., opened his violin case and began playing.  Four minutes went by and finally one man realized there was a musician playing, so he slowed down for a moment to listen but then carried on.  After about eight minutes, the violinist received his first dollar bill, tossed into his hat on the floor by a woman who never even looked in his direction.  A man leaned against a wall to listen for a moment.  Children would stop to listen, only to be quickly pulled away by their parents to keep a move on.

The man played six pieces of music by Bach for about 45 minutes and during that time a little over a thousand people walked by.  Seven people stopped to listen.  Twenty-seven people gave him money, totaling $32.  When he stopped playing no one applauded, no one noticed.  Just the sound of people in a hurry took over the train station atrium.

What no one in the train station knew that day was that the man playing was world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a child-prodigy who only three days earlier had played the same pieces of music for a sold-out show where the cheap tickets were $100 a seat.  But this day, standing in a train station atrium in a t-shirt and ball cap, playing on a violin that was worth $3.5 million dollars,  only seven people stopped to listen and twenty-seven people gave him a little more than a dollar.  The other 970 people didn’t even notice him.

It was an experiment done by the Washington Post newspaper and this experiment begs the question: can we notice or recognize something beautiful if it is not in the places we expect it?  Could we notice a beautiful painting that should be hanging in elaborate frame in a museum, but instead sits on the ground at a garage sale?  Could we recognize beautiful music if it wasn’t on stage or coming through our ipods and radios?

One day, a man and his friends came into a town called Capernaum.  They decided to go to church, and in fact this man got up in front of the church and began teaching the people there.  No one really knew who he was but it says they were astounded by his teaching.  But that was all.  Just astounded.  They liked it.  It was nice.  Different than what they usually heard and it was a nice change of pace, but nothing life changing.  They were like those who gave $1 to the violinist.  It was nice music, but not worth much of their time.  But then suddenly, there is a commotion at the back of the church.  A man had stood up in the aisle and was now mumbling something to himself.  As he stumbled up to the front, what he was saying got louder…. “I recognize you…..I know who you are.  You are the holy one of God.  What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”

Jesus had come to teach in this synagogue and no one recognized him.  No one knew who he was.  No one really stopped to take in what he was saying.  No one except this man  who was possessed by an unclean spirit.  He was the only one who recognized Jesus.  Immediately, Jesus speaks to the spirit, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!”  The man begins to painfully writhe and twist on the floor until the resistant and fighting unclean spirit released the strangle hold that it had had on this man’s life.

This story comes at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  In fact, this is one of the first things that he is involved in.  He is recognized by no one except the evil spirit in the room, which begs the question: will we recognize Jesus when he comes into our life?  Do we recognize God in the world? Do we know how to recognize God in the world and in our lives, outside these walls?  Or do we keep walking past God as if God is a street musician that no one really cares about?

Now it could be that perhaps there is good reason why we do not recognize God in the world – because it is risky.  If we learn anything about the God revealed in Jesus in this text, it is that when we recognize Jesus, it agitates us.  It disturbs us because it threatens our way of life.  “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to destroy us?”

And the answer…is yes.  Jesus has come to destroy us…to take the evil in our life and tear it out.  To destroy the part of us, that is, that has become possessed.  Possessed by anger or bitterness.  Or by addiction or apathy.  Possessed by greed or jealousy.

Jesus has come to tear out, to expose that which possesses us.  To say, “Come out with it!”  Because Jesus knows that the way to destroy something is to expose the truth about it.  Jesus comes to expose our fears. The fear that our money will run out and so we must hold on to it tighter than ever. The fear that “old age” equals “washed up and useless.”  Jesus comes to expose our arrogance.  The arrogance that we know who God loves and who God doesn’t love.  The arrogance that America must always and forever be the most powerful nation in the world.  Jesus comes to expose our rage.  The rage that for some of us life isn’t what we thought or ever wanted it to be.  The rage of being mistreated as a child.  Jesus comes to expose that which possesses us.  Because Jesus knows that it is only when you expose something that it can be healed.  One of the first steps in addiction recovery is exposing, or admitting, the problem.  “Hello, my name is so-and-so, and I am an alcoholic.”  When Jesus comes into the life of one who is possessed by alcohol, it is through an intervention by loved ones who exposes the addiction.  The voices cry out to the addiction, “Come out! Why are you doing this to yourself?  Why are you drinking yourself to death?”  And the temptation for many is to ignore such things.  To not recognize Jesus in it.  To walk on by as if it doesn’t exist.  But if they can see it…if they can recognize it as God speaking to them, then healing just might begin.

A friend of a mine told me about a man in her church who works with students at the local school.  This man also has an addiction.  In counseling for his addiction, he was instructed to journal about it.  And so he did.  But even though he was seeking help, it wasn’t long until the school became aware of his addiction and he was asked to resign from his job.  Everything started to spin.  His world was turned upside down.  The rumor-mill in town started churning; people started asking questions.  His family got caught up in the mix of it all.  It was incredibly disruptive and destructive for his life.  And yet, at the same time, suddenly something started to change with this man.  You could see it in his body.  His shoulders started to come down and everything just seemed to relax.  One day he said to my friend, “I feel like a heavy load has been taken off my back.  I feel free and unburdened.”  For this man, a part of him was dying. This man’s addiction was exposed and he recognized it as God in his life.

Do we know how to recognize God in our lives?  Or do we keep our heads down, avoiding eye contact and walking past God like so many walked past that famous violinist?  It’s risky to look for God in the world.  It will likely expose something about yourself.   But Jesus knows that it is only when you expose something that it, and you, can be truly healed. Amen.