The Jesus Mission We are Called To

The Jesus Mission We are Called To

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 for July 8, 2018, Pentecost +7B    Audio Version Here

Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

I like practicing Yoga for several reasons.  The health and fitness benefits are obvious to everyone.  But there is more.  No one I know grew up in a yoga-practicing family.    People here in America typically start practicing yoga because they want to become better people.  Some of them have been alienated by traditional religion, but they have not abandoned spirituality, and they often talk about practices and ways of thinking that will help them become more grounded and compassionate. 

So, why do people come to church? 

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The Jesus Touch: Healing the Nation

The Jesus Touch: Healing the Nation

Sermon on Mark 5:21-43 for July 1, 2018, Pentecost 6 B    Audio Version

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

I was listening to a podcast in which the speaker kept making references to Dostoyevski’s book, The Brothers Karamazov.   I had always felt bad that I had not read it, so I downloaded it as an audiobook and started listening to it when I run.  It is like other Russian novels – there are way too many pages spent on drawing room conversations, too much blushing and flushing and hand kissing – it can get tedious, for my tastes.   

But then you come to those scenes in which the most intense conversations happen, and it makes it worth all the drawing room pages. 

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Probably the most famous scene is the one about the Grand Inquisitor.  It is a story told by Ivan to his brother Alexi, which you may be familiar with.  But the reason I bring it up is what Ivan says just before the Grand Inquisitor story. 

Ivan says he has made it a personal past-time to collect stories of human cruelty.   He tells a number of them in horrible detail, like, for example, stories of what the Turkish soldiers do to civilians when they capture a village.   It’s too ghastly to repeat here.  (Book V, chapter 4 “Rebellion”)

Ivan makes several observations.  He says that people call this kind of evil behavior animalistic, but that no animal is cruel for the sheer pleasure of causing maximum suffering the way humans are.  It is an insult to animals. He also observes that enjoying the suffering of other people is completely mysterious.  It makes no rational sense, and yet the stories of it are abundant. 

The question about why bad things happen is always troubling, but the question of why humans cause unnecessary suffering is just as perplexing.  Even if there are reasons given, they are never sufficient.  Why does someone kill 5 people who work for a newspaper?  Even if he has a reason to hold a grudge, still, that is nowhere near an adequate explanation for what he did. 

Our Alternative World

We gather here to imagine and to speak of, and to proclaim an alternative to a world of violence and gratuitous suffering.  So, we tell Jesus-stories, and our quest is to connect those stories to our world.  That is what we are going to try to do today.

We read the text from the Gospel according to Mark about two events that happen in one day.  It is like a sandwich.  It begins and ends with a story about a prominent man named Jairus with a sick daughter whom he asks Jesus to visit and hopefully heal.  In between Jesus’ response and arrival at Jairus’ home, something unexpected happens.  A woman in the crowd around Jesus touches the edge of his robe in her quest for healing, and Jesus notices her touch.

You have heard me say that Mark embeds his stories with many symbols.  He does that here too.  First, he tells us that Jesus and his crew have crossed to the other side.  Last week we noticed that  Jesus’s sea crossings are always about going from Jewish to Gentile space or back, which is why they are always so stormy.  Well, he has been on the Gentile side, so this return brings him back to Jewish space where the concerns are Jewish concerns, which we will see.

There are several parallels between the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and the sick girl.  Both are called “daughters.”  The Hebrew Bible calls Jerusalem “daughter Zion” – the city standing for the nation. 

So are we to understand these two daughters as emblematic of the nation?  Maybe so.  The number 12 comes up for both of them.  The woman has been sick for 12 years.  The girl is 12 years old.  So what?  Israel has twelve tribes.  The symbolism seems clear.  So, is the nation sick?  Is the sickness deadly, at least potentially?  What would the disease be?  Can Jesus do anything about it?

Touch is involved in both stories.  The sick woman touches Jesus.  Jesus touches the little girl’s hand. 

The woman is sick with a blood disorder.  Blood makes you impure, and impure people have to be isolated from others or their impurity is spread; not to trivialize it, but it’s like we used to think of cooties when we were children.   When the woman touches Jesus she makes him impure. 

The fact that he stops and draws attention to that touch makes his impurity a public fact.  But he completely ignores it.  Touching Jesus heals the woman instantly. 

“He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Faith comes up in both stories too.  Jesus credits the woman’s healing to her faith.  When he gets to Jairus’ house and finds his daughter dead, Jesus says to Jairus,

“Do not fear, only believe.” 

Faith” is the noun.  To believe” is the verb.   Both mean, essentially, “trust.” 

Some have called this Jesus’ shortest sermon.  We are not told if anyone does believe, but the healing works.  Jesus takes the girl’s hand, tells her to rise, and she does. 

So how does having trust in Jesus lead to healing and even to restored life? 

One of the big ways that the nation of Israel, the “daughter Zion” was sick to death was their emphasis on purity.  Impure people were excluded.  This was a problem for Jewish people themselves, especially rural people whose lives put them in constant exposure to animals, from birth to slaughter, making them perpetually impure.  But how much more were Gentiles impure. 

But Jesus intentionally crossed the sea to the Gentile side, and when he returned, he completely ignored the purity taboos in the interest of bringing healing.  In fact, it was his unwillingness to respect those exclusionary taboos that brought healing.  Nobody was a touch-me-not to Jesus; Jewish or Gentile, sick, dead, contaminated or Synagogue big shot.  Jesus’ interest was in bringing healing. 

Are We Sick?

Let us bring this into our world.  Is there any sickness we need to be cured of?  Most of us, just like most faith leaders, including our Presbyterian leaders, and people in both political parties have been horrified by the practice of separating children from their parents.  So we are all thankful that the policy of separation has been reversed, but we are all concerned for the children who have already been separated and how and when they will be reunited. 

But where does this policy that caused so much unnecessary suffering come from?  There are a set of rationals that have been offered.  We are told there is an immigration crisis, that large numbers of immigrants are coming into our nation, that they are criminals, that they are taking American jobs, driving down wages, that they are straining resources, taking benefits without paying taxes, hurting our economy, and making all of us unsafe. 

None of those claims are true.  Even conservative sources like the Cato Institute say that crime statistics, in every category, are much lower for immigrants than for us natives.  The number of migrants is near record lows and has been since 2010, so there is no crisis in numbers. 

According to the George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, as well as plenty of more recent studies,  immigrants are a benefit to our economy.  They do not receive more services than the taxes they pay.  In fact, they benefit many sectors of our economy, some of which, like agriculture, would be severely jeopardized if they were not doing those jobs that most natives do not want anyway.   Additionally, their children assimilate to our language, our culture, and our way of living.  They serve in our armed forces and fight in our wars. 

The people making policy in Washington know these facts.  They are readily available, and, to emphasize it, they can be found in conservative sources.

So if the reasons given for an anti-immigration policy are not real reasons, what other reasons remain?  

Could it be that there is a sickness in our nation that can only be described as a kind of nativism that looks at non-natives as somehow impure as if they had cooties?  It is hard to find an alternative motivation.  If immigrants actually help us instead of harming us, why else do we want to keep them out?   Why are we willing to cause such unnecessary suffering for families? 

One thing is clear.  Following Jesus means seeking ways to show compassion.  It means crossing boundaries to include the other.  It means seeking healing.  It means doing the things that promote life. 

And it means trusting that Jesus’ way is the right way.  That kind of faith, the willingness to risk openness to others, the trust that God will be there for us when we do what is right and good, will be our healing, and the healing of our nation.

The People Who Cross Over

The People Who Cross Over

Sermon on Mark 4:35-41 for Pentecost +5, June 24, 2018,     Audio Version 

Mark 4:35-41

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 windstorm 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?”

The People Who Cross Over

It seems that everyone loves a good sea story.  The ancient Greeks told them.  In the Odyssey, the hero Odysseus struggles against several storms at sea, trying to return home from the Trojan war. 

The Jews tell the story of Jonah, complete with frightened sailors crying out to their gods, as the storm threatens to break up the ship, and meanwhile, Jonah is down in the hold, sleeping. 

The book of Acts tells of Paul surviving a shipwreck that does break up his boat.  In our times, one of our most famous is the story of the Titanic. 

So today, we have a story, from the gospel according to Mark, of a storm at sea.  Like Jonah, it includes frightened sailors and a sleeping passenger. 

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Family Matters

Family Matters

Sermon on Mark 3:20-35 for June 10, 2018, Pentecost +3, B                               Adio Version

Mark 3:20-35

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.”

We all have an idealized concept of our potential selves.  We have an image of how we could be.  And we all know that we do not live up to that rather transcendent ideal.  That is part of why we often feel badly about ourselves – we know that we could be better.  We know that if we stopped believing our own excuses, if we broke some bad habits, if we exercised more self-control, if we would just think before we spoke, if we were not so conscious of trying to protect our egos, if we would learn to forgive, we could be better people. 

We all probably have at least one thing that we are doing now that if we would just stop doing it, we would be more like that idealized best self.   And, we all probably have something that we know, if we just started doing it, we would be more like our idealized best self. 

In that sense alone, if in no other sense, we all need healing.  We are all broken people.  Of course, there are other reasons we need healing too.  There are things that have happened to us, completely outside of our control, that have injured us.  As the saying goes, “everyone is carrying a heavy burden…”. 

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Provocation and Wellbeing

Provocation and Wellbeing

Sermon on Mark 2:23—3:6 for June 3, 2018, Pentecost +2B

Mark 2:23—3:6

One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; 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.”

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.

We have to talk about conflicts today.  I do not like conflicts at all.  I do my best to avoid them.  But I remember having a conversation several years ago about the Christian values we are trying to teach our children.  The person I was talking with mentioned things like politeness and good manners.  Don’t misunderstand me, I believe strongly in politeness and civility.  In fact, the lack of civility in our current political climate is appalling!  But Christianity is not about manners for their own sake. 

There are some conflicts that we engage in, and some issue we take sides on, precisely because we are Christians.  We are civil in our disagreements, we do not use name calling or character assassination, but we do stand up for justice in the face of injustice.  We speak up when people are being oppressed.  We call attention to systems that privilege some, at the expense of others.   

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Our Omni-Relational God

Our Omni-Relational God

Sermon on  John 3:1-17 for May 27, 2018, Pentecost B       Audio Version here

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

How do you experience God?  I guess I am assuming that you do have experiences that you feel OK identifying as experiences of God, or of the Divine, or Transcendent. Nearly everyone does. 

Today is the day we think about our experience of God.  We are following in the footsteps of the early church that eventually came up with the word Trinity.  The Trinity is the word we use, to sum up the uncanny way in which our experience of God is not singular, or simple, but variegated, diverse. 

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Most of us experience moments of awe and wonder, of amazement.  Experiences of vastness often set off those feelings – the sea, the vista from the top of a mountain.  Think of all the people who go to Mount Magazine or Petite Jean just to be at the top and look out as far as the eye can see. 

Some people get that same feeling from the amazing microscopic world, or from the Hubble spacecraft pictures of deep space.  When we think of the vastness and complexity, the beauty that sometimes strikes us so deeply it almost hurts, we think of God, the Source, the Creator, or we could say, God the Father.

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Being Spiritual

Being Spiritual

Sermon on Acts 2:1-9, 12-18 for May 20, 2018, Pentecost, Year B

Acts 2:1-9, 12-18

“When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force—no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them.

There were many Jews staying in Jerusalem just then, devout pilgrims from all over the world. When they heard the sound, they came on the run. Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, “Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?

“They’re speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!”

Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?”

Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.”

That’s when Peter stood up and, backed by the other eleven, spoke out with bold urgency: “Fellow Jews, all of you who are visiting Jerusalem, listen carefully and get this story straight. These people aren’t drunk as some of you suspect. They haven’t had time to get drunk—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. This is what the prophet Joel announced would happen:

“In the Last Days,” God says,
“I will pour out my Spirit
on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
also your daughters;
Your young men will see visions,
your old men dream dreams.
When the time comes,
I’ll pour out my Spirit
On those who serve me, men and women both,
and they’ll prophesy.

In the gospel of John, which was called a “spiritual gospel” by early church leaders, we read that Jesus himself breaths on his disciples, saying to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

But Luke tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit differently.  He sets the occasion later, at the feast of Pentecost, and makes it a miracle story with para-normal sights, and sounds.  We will look at Luke’s version of the story this time, and then ask, what does it mean for us today?

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