March 29, 2015  

MARK 14 & 15

Gospel Mark 14:1—15:47

The passion story in Mark’s gospel presents Jesus as one who dies abandoned by all. He shows himself to be the true Son of God by giving his life for those who have forsaken him.

Chapter 14

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
3While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
12On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” 16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
17When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” 20He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. 21For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
22While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
26When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
28But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”
29Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” 30Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.
32They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” 35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
43Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. 44Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” 45So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. 46Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. 47But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 48Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? 49Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” 50All of them deserted him and fled.
51A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, 52but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
53They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. 54Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. 55Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. 56For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. 57Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, 58We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ 59But even on this point their testimony did not agree. 60Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 61But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.'”
63Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. 65Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.
66While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. 67When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” 68But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. 69And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” 71But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” 72At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Chapter 15

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
6Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. 9Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 14Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
16Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. 17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
21They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. 22Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
25It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. 26The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.
29Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
33When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
40There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.
42When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, 43Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. 46Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. 47Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
In a victory that led to the famous story of Hanukkah, when the Temple was re-opened but there was very little oil and God gave the oil to the people, there was a fantastic celebration in Jerusalem. It was about 170 BC, or about exactly 200 years before the Palm Sunday event we just celebrated. Palms branches were used to celebrate the victory of the Jewish fighters, guerilla fighters with the name Maccabees, meaning hammer, who defeated the Greek/Syrian army known to historians as the Seleucids. Palm branches lifted high in victory celebration, what a memory! There weren’t that many great victories in the past five or six hundred years for Jews to celebrate, so when they waved palms and scattered them in Jesus’ path, they were celebrating that Jerusalem was going to be in Jewish hands and the Jewish future was in the hands of the one who rode in front of them. They lived in hope that what the Maccabees had done would be happening again soon.

It would certainly appear that Jesus had raised the hopes and expectations of the crowds. Biblical scholars say that Jerusalem at most was 50 – 100 hundred thousand people in ordinary days, but that the pilgrim festival called Passover brought Jews from all over to the Temple and doubled the city at least. So estimates of 200 – 500 thousand people are given. In crowds that big, a royal and ceremonial ride into town like Jesus had would have been noticed by thousands upon thousands of people. There is no way that Jesus snuck into the city on that Sunday.

Even though he rode on an untrained and perhaps unbroken donkey colt, there was a message. If it was an unbroken animal, then Jesus did an amazing joy of calming this animal down. And we know it was small, a colt. So Romans would have ridden into town on stallions where their feet were at the level of peoples’ heads. But Jesus rode into town at eye level. Think of that. Jesus and the crowd, even in this special procession, were eye to eye.

But the expectations of the crowd were disappointed. That’s the story we just heard. The crowd admired Jesus, but He refused to be the hero they wanted him to be. Here were people still suffering under oppression, Romans rather than Seleucid for this generation, and they wanted to succeed and flourish on their own. They wanted change so that they could be the chosen people of God that they knew themselves to be.

They had high hopes. Often, when we have high hopes, we want quick action. We even want what one writer called “slash and burn kinds of stuff”. So you want to end racism? You want to end gender and sexual discrimination? You want to end religious oppression? You want to end cancer? God, come with your mighty slash and burn power to eradicate whatever gets in the way.

That’s certainly what many in the crowd hoped for. And they really didn’t see it in this special someone riding on a colt of a donkey.

Jesus was saying to them, I’m not going to ride above you. I’m going to be on your level. And I am not going to destroy, to slash and burn everything you think is sick and wrong and bad. I’m going to ride a colt that is inexperienced and doesn’t know what it is doing. I am going to lead people who are inexperienced and don’t have a clue, either.

So he does things in the only way that God could ever do to truly come to the hearts of the world. He offers himself up in our stead. There is no slash and burn response to Caiaphas and the high priest, or to the Roman governor Pilate, or to the disciples who let him down, scattering and even denying they ever knew him.

This day, Palm Sunday, is the day the crowd and all the disciples who came into Jerusalem with Jesus had their expectations tortured by Jesus. Jesus would not run the Romans out of town. He would disappoint all who wished for that. I hope you heard all the ironies of this story.

But he would be God on display, for all to see, patient and loving and full of mercy. Many hopes were dashed, and he ended up hanging on the cross.

And we really don’t know if his disciples remembered his words “if anyone wishes to come after me, then let them take up their cross and follow me”.

But follow him we will, to Holy Thursday foot washing and meal, and to Good Friday trial and cross, and to Holy Saturday’s entombment.

We will follow Jesus down the path the crowd did not expect.

Come, watch how God really acts, humbly, to save God’s people.


March 25, 2015  

MARK 14:26-31 

Throughout these Lenten mid-week services, tonight being the fifth and last one, I have been inviting us to look at some of Jesus’ saying in the final week of his life. The word “must” is in all of them, and I wanted to talk about what that means. This word ‘must’ is not meant to mean that God is pushy or demanding, as in “as a Christian, you’ve gotta do this or that”. This word ‘must’ indicates the reality of living in God’s world. So last week we heard about the threat of wars and rumors of wars that must take place, and the fact that before the Son of Man returns in glory, the good news must be preached to all lands. And Jesus called the time of waiting our “birth pang” time, and I talked about these verses being understood as God birthing disciples. We are not to sit here trying to figure out heavenly time tables, but in the middle of all that happens to upset our lives, wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and tornadoes and terrorists and cancer diagnoses, we are called to go before judges and all the world with the Good News of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changing our world.

Tonight the word ‘must’ does not come from Jesus’ mouth, but from Peter’s. “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And the reality Jesus had just talked about was that all the disciples would desert him. All the disciples would scatter and run. Then Peter says this.

One of the parts of my Navy work for many years was dealing with deserters. I even did that while here in La Crosse. You probably didn’t know that. For three years I was a regional chaplain out of Minneapolis, and then for another three years was the regional chaplain out of Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago. Whenever a sailor was gone for more than 72 hours, I would get copied a letter from that ship or base which was sent to the sailor at his or her home address, as well as to their noted next of kin. It would ask them to turn themselves in, and then it gave them my name and contact information as a chaplain they could talk with. I could usually tell when an aircraft carrier and its support group of oilers and ammunition ships and cruisers and destroyers and frigates and submarines was about to take off. That’s when people would run for it.

There were a number of reasons why people abandoned their posts. You could probably guess them. The main reason was “love”. More often than not it was a teen away from home for the first time, and about to embark on a 7 month cruise away from their beloved boy or girl friend. They couldn’t bear the thought of separation, even though they knew when they enlisted in the Navy that the Navy has ships and usually the ships don’t stay tied to their pier. That always intrigued me. Airplane squadrons go flying off on aircraft carriers, ships and submarines go out to sea, and corpsman go do medical support with the Marines. Why would you think anything else? Why did you think you were ok by skipping off and staying home? And more to the point, every one of these sailors had raised their right hand without any pressure, and sworn an oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of all put in command over them. They had sworn to obey. Why run away at the first emotionally tough moment?

So they were UA, an unauthorized absence, or what the Army calls AWOL, absent without leave. And at the 30 day mark, they would be called deserters, and the FBI and all law enforcement agencies would be notified, and even given a bounty to pick them up. So I had to tell them that truth, help them to face the truth, and tell them that in all cases, by telling the truth, admitting the mistake, and getting back as soon as possible they would make their punishment lighter. They would be punished. They would get a lighter load the sooner they went back, and the more forthright and contrite they would be always would help out. Their next question was always, “but what will the punishment be?”, and I couldn’t tell them the answer. It was up to their commanding officer, but I couldn’t take away or undo for them the consequences of what they had done.

Jesus said to his disciples, you will become deserters, all of you. Now I know that some people are not really fond of the fact that most Sunday worship services start with a confession of sin. But we do that because the reality of our life, as we look back over the past week, is that we had times when we deserted God. We had a chance to be a witness, but folded our tents. We had moments where we could have shown care or compassion, but chose what seemed to be an easier way. We had moments we could have used for growing in the disciplines of faith, prayer and giving alms to those in need and fasting from our indulgences, but instead we took the easy way. Almost always, we deserted because we thought the cost of being a disciple wasn’t worth the pain or bother. So we start our Sunday worship services by being honest about that.

To some degree, Jesus knew what was ahead. He knew He was going to the cross alone. He knew the disciples were not going to turn into some army of God to protect him. He knew they wouldn’t stick out their necks and go to bat for him when he most needed defenders.

And so he told them that. And I think, in telling this to those who were in the inner circle, those taught well and having miracles and parables explained to them, that He was saying to all who would come after, we are no different. We will cut and run as well. We ought not to think that we are any better.

I know God can change our hearts. One of the things I loved about my years with the Marines was I knew they would take a bullet for their buddy. One of the enduring legacies of the 9/11 tragedy is our deep love of the NYFD, because these firefighters ran toward the danger rather than the other way. God can turn our direction. God can teach us and train us and convert us and love us into people who do not run from danger, but run toward evil and run toward the needy and run toward injustice and confront it. But we also know that in matters of faith and the heart, we struggle with our inborn need to survive, and sometimes we find it very dangerous to be found near Jesus. Jesus knew that even those who said they would follow him would end up deserting him.

So Peter was further told by Jesus that before the cock crowed twice, he would deny him three times. There were bugle calls by the Roman army throughout the night, marking watches just as we in the military mark watches on ship with chimes and bells today. The early morning bugle call was called the gallicanum, or call of the rooster. It doesn’t matter whether it was the morning bugle calls or the actual rooster calls, we know the story we will read this Sunday for the Passion. Peter will end up denying Jesus, actually cursing and taking an oath that he never knew the man that they were talking about.

This is our reality. If we think we are any better than Peter, then we will end up disappointing ourselves. This whole story not only tells us that Jesus had some honest sense of what was ahead, but it tells us that Jesus was willing to continue to the betrayal and courtroom scenes and to the cross even without his disciples. Mark tells us the story as if the last man standing is Jesus, and he will take the cross for us. And the next event in the telling of this story is Jesus’ night of prayer in Gethsemane, and the story doesn’t change. Jesus takes three friends with him to stay awake and join in prayer, but they all fall asleep, not once, but three times. Peter denies Jesus three times, the disciples including him fall asleep three times: you just cannot count on even your closest friends.

Which means something incredibly difficult to hear: it wasn’t just Jewish courts, or Roman government officials, who led Jesus to die. It was the absolute abandonment of God by God’s people.

God’s friends still run away today. Jesus was left without anyone to stand up for Him. This means that if we are honest about our own desertion of God and our own willingness to scatter, then we are find ourselves somehow in that group that leaves Jesus to face death alone. Our silence, our willingness to cut and run, our desertion, are all part of the reason Jesus will die alone on the hill outside Jerusalem.

Yet in the story is this one wonderful line: “But after I am raised up, I will meet you in Galilee”. To every deserter worried about facing the commanding officer, to every disciple worried about facing Jesus, here comes the word of hope and comfort: “I will be raised, and I will meet you back at the base. Your future will still be with me.”


LENT 5 B 2015 – MARCH 22, 2015 OSLC

March 22, 2015  

JEREMIAH 31:31-34; HEBREWS 5:5-10; JOHN 12:20-33 

I have this clear recollection. I was thinking, as an elementary student of about 4th grade, that this was one of the weirdest thing my father had ever done. A huge box had arrived at our home. Huge boxes didn’t arrive very often. He opened it expectantly. It was a set of kitchen dishes.

It was the late 1950’s, the dawning of the space age. There were new discoveries from the space program starting to infiltrate our every-day world. One was a miracle product called Melamine.

Our family was 8 people strong. This was a big set of dishes. Getting new dishes hadn’t happened in my memory. And the box was opened, and Dad proceeded to unwrap the dishes. They were green, something new called Melmac made from this miracle product melamine. They were unbreakable, Dad told us. So what unfolded before my eyes? My father grabbed the new dishes and threw them on the floor. Not dropped. He threw them. One by one, he threw them onto the floor. I was so stunned, I didn’t understand. And they bounced!

But after a few bouncing dishes that indeed didn’t break, I figured it out. He had no idea if they really were unbreakable. They proved themselves to my Dad. They were kid-proof.

Here was the truth, the truth of all existence until that point: real dishes break. That’s how you know they are real dishes. And many of you who have lived with green Melmac know they weren’t real dishes, but they worked amazingly well. But real dishes break.

As do humans. And, as we remember every Lent, so does God. We are in the last week before Holy Week. We will watch God break on the cross next week. Or, as John’s Gospel puts it today in a metaphor: “as a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. So God, Jesus on the cross, will really break and die.

Last week our Bishop, Jim Arends, preached on the Gospel which had one of the most well known verses in Scripture: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The way God loves the world is not always comprehensible. Like Dad not quite believing Melmac’s claims, we don’t quite believe what God is doing on the cross.

Most often we are more comfortable saying or believing something like “For God so loved me and my friends – people who look and think and act and vote like I do — so that God gave his only son…..” Just before today’s Gospel about seed being buried in the dirt and dying in order to bring forth life, Jesus had been bringing forth life. He had been with Mary and Martha and raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. He had then ridden into Jerusalem to get ready for the Passover, on the day we will celebrate next Sunday as Palm Sunday. He had come to be God for the world. Some of the world thought that he was mad, and if not that, then they thought the world was mad for going after him with palms and songs and words of praise.

But today’s scene brings some Greeks to Jesus. We don’t really know who they were. They could have been Greek-speaking Jews who were in Jerusalem for the Passover. They could have been Greek merchants, or Greek tourists. We have no clue, except that they were Greeks. Greeks not only spoke differently from the Hebrew or Aramaic of the Jews. They often dressed differently. It would have been clear to anyone watching that these were not the normal followers of Jesus. Clearly, they were not the normal Jews in town for the religious holy days. And they asked to see Jesus.

What a wonderful request that is: Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. What a great question for all of us to be asking. What would you and I do if someone asked us, “would you help me find Jesus? Could you show me Jesus?” Do we have an answer for them?

Now it becomes very clear, through this interaction, that the ministry of Jesus is not just for Jews. It is for the world. The world that God sent his son into is clearly coming to him. The whole world is looking for Jesus. And Jesus responds by letting them know that they shouldn’t be looking for greatness. The person who rode into town to the cries of the multitudes is not some kind of religious rock star. If you want to look for him, look down into the dirt where seeds get sown, and look up into the sky, where the Son of man will be lifted up, Jesus says. These were the very words which were fulfilled when He was lifted up onto the cross.

And John, in telling us this story in his Gospel, clearly wants us to know that the glory of God shines out into the whole world, to these Greeks and the whole world. For God so loved the world becomes today’s reality. And the way God shines on this whole world is by being broken, by being vulnerable, not by being a star.

Vulnerability is not easy. It means being willing to be put in harm’s way. It means being open to being potentially endangered. It means exposure to things that can kill us, sickness and evil and more. It means to offer an opening to someone else instead of closing up to them.

One of the things that social work has taught us is that one of the most important things in a person’s ability to thrive is the very act of human connectedness. To be connected, we need to be vulnerable. People who most understand, even if it is just intuitive, that they might get hurt, or might lose something, but still work on making connections with other people, these are the ones who seem to have the most satisfying relationships. Thriving emotionally and being connected to others is deeply important to our well-being.

God intended, from day one, to be out on the margins of the world, connecting, making sure that the world, all the world, was aware of God’s love and care for the orphan and the widowed and the alien and the sojourner among us, to quote some Bible thoughts. As well as with the dead, and those who had been left alongside the road in the ditch, just as good as dead. You will find God being vulnerable, making those connections.

Maybe we don’t associate God with vulnerability, with dying like seed in the dirt. God by definition is all powerful and all knowing and all seeing, and everywhere at once. But Jesus in the manger is God being vulnerable. And Jesus riding on a donkey is God being vulnerable. And God meeting these Greeks and responding to their wish with a story about being buried in the dirt and being lifted up from the earth was our God telling us that God struggles, and sees the risks, deeply feels them, and still plans to go down that road.

The social work lesson, that humans most thrive who are connected and vulnerable, is the message that our God is trying to teach us. Our omnipotent God chooses vulnerability. That’s how we know this is authentic love. And the vulnerable, breakable God wishes to be connected with us.

And this is meant for the whole world, Greek tourists and Jews getting ready for Passover. And that world, the “for God so loved the whole world”, includes you and me.

Connected to this vulnerable God, we know exactly how to answer any time anyone asks us to see Jesus. We start with the cross. And then, and only then, do we begin to grow and thrive.

MID-WEEK LENT 4 2015 – MARCH 18, 2015 OSLC

March 18, 2015  

MARK 13:3-13

I have been preaching about the “musts” that come out of the mouth of Jesus in the last half of the Gospel of Mark, this year’s Gospel focus. In the home of my youth, my mom would say things like “if you want to go play catch with Gary, you must do the dishes first”. “If you want to watch TV, you must get your homework done first.” “No, you must go to bed at 10 pm. You can’t stay up late”. It wasn’t that mom was out to squash fun out of my life. She knew how to bring life to me and in the whole family. There were some “musts” experienced every day that defined our family’s existence. The last half of the Gospel of Mark, eight of sixteen chapters, basically occur in one week we call Holy Week. In these words of Good News, we hear Jesus define life in the family of God.

The “musts” we have heard so far are that Jesus “…must undergo great suffering be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again”, and the backlash of the disciples to such a plan; followed by “whoever wants to be first must be last of all”, where we learned how different the kingdom Jesus was introducing is from the power curves of our world. Then we heard Jesus respond to someone who wanted to follow him and asked him this question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life”, and Jesus’ answer shocked him and led to a broken heart. Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, and then to follow him. He went away full of sorrow, we are told. He couldn’t let go. What he owned tied him down. And I talked about fasting as not being just as diet plan or diet fad, like giving up asparagus and broccoli and chocolate for Lent, but fasting is a re-ordering of our time, our energy, our heart. It means to let go and make room for something new, food or prayer or people or God.

So now we are at the fourth “must”, and it is a double “must”. Some tough stuff must take place, wars and rumors of wars, and earthquakes and famines, before the Son of Man comes back in the clouds, the final judgment scene, the final consummation of history. And the good news must be preached to all nations.

We all have been aware of different apocalyptic scenes, scenes of destruction and the end of the world as we know it. It could be Will Smith and Bill Pullman in the movie “Independence Day”, or any number of zombie movies out in recent years, or Bruce Willis in the 23rd Century being one of the planet’s few remaining inhabitants.. It could be some of the Left Behind books or movies. All of them are alike in that they talk about the world facing overwhelming and destructive changes, and the inability of most people to either stave off the problem or save themselves. We are pawns in a world governed by stronger forces, whether they be aliens, or evil government, or plagues, or the walking dead (which, just be clear, I think is one of the strangest fads to come along in a long time). I just don’t get flesh eating dead people, but that could be me, I know. Maybe I am missing out on something crucial here.

What is certainly clear is that there are some things that get our collective blood pressures up.

Sometimes a day’s worth of headlines will do that. Here are some that have come onto my smart phone screen in the last 28 hours: large Soviet forces in a military exercise yesterday – it’s an echo of the cold war that so many of us lost some amounts of sleep over; an Israeli election with a hawkish Prime Minister who attacked Arabs on election day being re-elected – a clear statement that war-mongering can win an election; a Tunisian museum being over-run by kidnappers and killers – which makes us wonder where we are safe to be tourists, for these poor people has simply sailed into port that day on cruise liners; Caroline Kennedy, ambassador to Japan, receives death threats – which brings up old wounds for people of my generation who clearly remember where we were on the day JFK was assassinated; plus all the stuff about ISIS, including Americans rushing to join, and our fears about what happens when they return and what havoc they might bring.

If we want reasons to be afraid, we don’t need to go to the Scripture. We’ve got them all around, including wondering if there is formaldehyde entering the air we breathe from the wood and flooring that is in our homes. But then Jesus said this, centuries ago, and the words don’t go away.

Please be clear, Jesus’ words apply to every age. There has always been some new disease and some foreign power just waiting over the horizon to challenge our futures. But Jesus calls these things

“birth pangs”, which really re-frames them. They are about new beginnings, not about dead endings.

Our fears are always about ending, and in the case of anything that seems apocalyptic, we need to hear Jesus frame them as part of the birth process. And what is being birthed? Disciples! People who can stand before the world and say that these things do not scare Jesus out of our lives. These things do not cause us to doubt the caring God who has touched us personally. And we will testify, and the Spirit of God will give us the strength to speak and the words to speak, Jesus promises.

Which isn’t that hard, if we have a story to tell. What I mean is this: if we have seen something, we don’t have any problem talking about, describing it. It could sometimes be bigger than words, like what we felt when our child was born, or when we saw the Grand Canyon or the Norwegian fjords. But it is still real. And we don’t have problems talking about our joy at the Badgers being one of the favorites in the NCAA and our intent to watch the games, or my pride that the wonderful state of Iowa has not one but three teams, all the state universities they have, in the NCAA – UNI, U of I, and ISU.

We don’t have trouble telling stories of Jesus when Jesus has touched our lives, or answered our prayers, or come close to us when we fasted from foods and from TV and from gaming and internet and texting.

For many of us, we have stories of tough days becoming the gateway to joy. We can talk about the diagnosis of a heart blockage turning into procedures, stents or bypass, that promise us a longer life. We can talk about finding a problem that turns out to eliminate a problem, a cancer removed and chemo or radiation therapies that killed those little cancer buggers in our bodies and brought us a new day. Some can talk about losing a job, only to find one that brings renewed joy and purpose.

Jesus was not trying to tell us that the world was marching forward on some sort of timetable, and there is a countdown, and our job is decipher how many years planet earth has left. In a few more paragraphs, we hear him say that the Son of Man doesn’t even know the day and the hour of his return. He was saying that in the world as we know it, there will be big changes, and those are not reasons to abandon our faith or feel that God has abandoned us. Something new is being birthed.

And indeed, exactly where Jesus sat, on his third and last visit to the Temple, would become a pile of rubble in the year 70 A.D., within the lifetime of many of his listeners. The Romans would reach such a decisive victory over Jewish rebels that the nation would be destroyed for quite some centuries, and its inhabitants dispersed as refugees throughout the world. The words of Jesus came true. Destruction to Jerusalem happened.

But that wasn’t the end to the words. He offered up hope and strength to people of faith of all generations. And then he showed us how to face the trials and the judges and the court of public opinion. He began a journey over the next two days that led to his own trial and his own defense and his own death warrant. And He went with love and forgiveness for those who misunderstood him and condemned him.

He gave us, in living technicolor, the witness of how to live when our days are falling apart, and he gave us the victory that tells us that no human power gets the last word in matters of life and death.

Which is why the cross looms overhead us and beside us. As our bishop said on Sunday, we are surrounded by crosses for a reason.

And that reason is not fear.

It is hope. It is witness. It is the public testimony that says we see what God was up to, we get it now, and we would like to God to birth in us a new story of faith.



March 11, 2015  

Mark 10: 17-22 

Last week I talked just a little bit about the three ancient practices of Lent, which are fasting, prayer and giving alms, or making gifts to the poor without any expectation of receiving benefits or return payments. And in talking about fasting, I described it as much more than a diet fad, giving up chocolate or ice cream or special things we love like asparagus. I talked about letting go of things that fill our life to such degree that they might not be healthy. Fasting can be the act of letting go of the things that keep us from taking time to grow our spirits. So I suggested that we can fast from television, or fast from the internet, or fast from gaming, or fast from texting, in just such a real way as we can fast from Brussel sprouts. But I also said that fasting is something even larger than giving up something. It is filling that time with our Lord, or using that money we would have spent on the activity and then taking the time to reconnect with God, and using the money to give to others rather than spend on ourselves. So fasting leads to prayer leads to giving, in some real way. All three Lenten practices are wound together.

Here is this week’s story from the Gospel of Mark. Remember that the theme word this Lent is “must”. What does that word mean in our world? So this man runs up to Jesus with a question that is so important he just has to blurt it out: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus is setting out on a journey. The man is possibly delaying the start of Jesus’ trip. When has that ever kept Jesus from taking time for people? So Jesus stops in his tracks and takes time to teach and to respond in this moment. Just before all this happened, religious leaders were trying to trap Jesus with their questions. Is it lawful to divorce someone? What are the reasons or conditions? There were different traditional answers, and they mattered greatly in the lives of the couples and families affected. Which side are you going to take on this important family and societal issue, Jesus?

But this man isn’t trying to trap Jesus. He appears to be really sincere, so much so that he is willing to impose his question upon a man getting ready to leave on a trip.

And some translations would say that this man flung himself at Jesus’ feet. That translation might suggest that the man is really worked up about this question. Or it might suggest that he really wants to get Jesus’ attention, or make Jesus feel that he is incredibly serious about his request. And it might suggest that he really respects Jesus as an authority figure.

What must I do to inherit eternal life, the question rings out. There’s a pre-supposition in that question; a couple of them, actually. First of all, this man does believe that there is life after death. That’s important. Not all Jews of the day believed that. Not everyone today believes that. A number of people simply believe that one lives, does one’s best, then dies, hopefully peacefully after living a long life, and then what survives is our reputation, our philanthropy, and our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now that’s a pile of stuff living on, but none of these are the same as eternal life. But this man believes in eternal life, that there is something beyond life as we know it.

The second presupposition is that we can do something to get there. The pronoun “I” is wrapped in the middle of this sentence: what must I do. And the answer is somehow tied up with money, and stuff, and ultimately fasting. “Listen: Sell all that you have and give it to the poor”, Jesus says. And then we are told that this man had lots of possessions, and went away shocked and grieving.

In between these moments was a Q and A, a question and answer session between Jesus and the man. The man calls Jesus good, and Jesus humbly says that one can only call God good, and then begins to recite the 10 Commandments. Because this is spring training, let’s go back to the basics, and say the 10 Commandments together:

I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods………

                  (Look in Exodus 20 and read them in their full context)

Jesus does just that with the man, and the man says he has kept them from his youth.

Which means: look, Jesus, I’m very respectable. I’m very dependable. I really learned my lessons in Boy Scouts and I’ve got both the 10 Commandments and the 12 points of the Scout law all covered:

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent”. I’m doing all these 22 things of what I’m supposed to. But I’m just not sure I’m doing enough. Give me confirmation.

And here is Jesus’ surprising answer, at least, very surprising to this man, and I think to all that guides our society today: Being respectable isn’t enough. Not causing harm to other people is not enough. Having no police record is not enough. In other words, at the center of our faith, not doing stuff isn’t enough.

Doing stuff is where faith becomes real. And here is what you need to be doing, says Jesus. You need to let go of your stuff, the things that are so important to you that you cannot imagine life without them, the stuff that takes your time and your heart, the stuff that gives you identity in the community. Let go of all of that. Fast from that. That’s the starting point to Jesus’ talk about eternal life.

I don’t think for a minute that Jesus was trying to make it impossible for this guy to get peace about eternal life. I don’t think for a minute that Jesus tries to keep anyone out of eternal life or heaven. I do think Jesus is asking us to fast, to let go, to come closer to God and farther from the stuff of this world, and Jesus is ‘spot on’ when he talks about our stuff, our possessions, as causing a huge blockage to our faith journey.

So why do people go out and camp in a tent, anyway? Sure, it might be to get closer to nature.

But maybe it is to unburden ourselves of stuff, and to live simply. What happens when we go on a trip, and what we need to bring along has to fit into a carry-on suitcase unless we want to pay baggage fees? Do we go on this trip all upset because we can’t take our whole wardrobe? We will take all our kids heading to Detroit and convince them that they cannot take their whole bedrooms with them on the bus. We do these periodic stints of living without, but Jesus wasn’t just talking about living out of a tent or suitcase or duffel bag. Jesus was talking about everyday life.

What MUST I do? Jesus’ answer is not a prescription or a law. It is a definition of God’s new reality. The people who come with me into the kingdom are people who are fasting and praying and giving, not the people who are holding on. If we are holding on, we are held back. It’s that simple.

The bus will leave without us. So God invites us to come on this journey with Jesus by letting go of stuff, and even people, traveling unencumbered with Jesus on a journey defined by faith.

Jesus left on the journey. He went down the road. We presume this man was not going with him and the disciples, because he was grieving, which meant he had to go back home to be reconnected with the stuff that give him his identity, rather than letting go so that Jesus might give him his identity.

Fasting is not a diet craze. It is a lifestyle of letting go and reconnecting with Jesus.

Jesus was not questioning the man’s integrity. He was inviting new priorities.

Jesus was inviting new life. The man wanted his old life.

Our Lenten journey will be a trip into doing some new things, and letting go of lots of the old. That’s a trip into new life. And Jesus showed his disciples how to shed the distractions, and how to claim the cross. That will be our struggle of faith every day, but Jesus invites us to walk down this road with Him. Jesus invites us to know that He will laugh and cry with us on the way. What better way to try something new than with a support group? That is what we are to each other, with Jesus coaching us, inviting us to let go and learn how to do this new thing called faith.


MIDWEEK LENT 2 2015 – MARCH 4, 2015 OSLC

March 4, 2015  

MARK 9:35

It was my first part of Navy Chaplain’s School. Commander Don Muchow was our Basic Course instructor, and he was strong, helpful, tough, and a master teacher. There are many things he taught me that I still remember, but here is one story.

He talked about his first duty station at Philadelphia and the old Naval Hospital there. It was a busy place during the Vietnam War, and he had an active ministry among the wounded. He thought he was doing a great job, until the senior chaplain and he had a sit-down supervisory session. The supervisor asked how things were going, and Don bubbled about how he knew the doctors and the patients, their names and so much more. Then he was stopped in his tracks by this question: what are the names of the people who clean the rooms? Who are the people who bring the patients their food? What are their names? Who does the laundry? And the senior chaplain went on to say that these nearly invisible people often had the most direct contact with the patients, and had a huge part to play in making the patient’s stay happy and comfortable. He was required to come back the very next day with everyone’s names. He was humbled. He thought he was important, and knew the important details, and was succeeding at doing the important things. His supervisor needed to re-focus his efforts.

Don later became Rear Admiral Muchow, 20th Chief of Chaplains of the United States Navy, and he used this teaching story often. Here is his message, and here is our message from the Gospel of St. Mark: we neglect the invisible at our peril. Often those whom regard as unimportant are extremely important.

Which is where we encounter Jesus, master teacher, and his disciples in today’s lesson. “What were you arguing about?” Jesus was asking his disciples. “ I heard you getting kind of animated as we were walking back there. It seemed like something serious was going on.” But of course, he knew. James and John had asked out loud if they could sit at his right side and left side when he got into this kingdom. They wanted seats at the front table. They wanted public recognition for all their work with Jesus. They wanted what would turn out to be their Lenten journey to pay off in tangible ways. And this desire had spilled over into the conversations on the walk. Obviously, the other disciples were not pleased that these two had tried to jump to the head of the line.

But come on, that’s where we all want to be. Have you ever gotten up very early the day after Thanksgiving to get in on the first hour of the sales? Of course, when you get there, you go to the end of the line, and others just fall in behind you. Does anyone go out in the early hours of Black Friday and say to everyone else “Where’s the back of the line? I’ll just stay there.” Yes, of course we stand at the back of the line, but it soon becomes the middle of the line as others get behind us. We don’t seem too eager to keep backing up to last place and staying thee.

And we don’t seem to like our sports teams in last place. It has been difficult being a Timberwolves fan this year, and a Bucks fan last year, or a Minnesota Twins baseball fan over the past three years. Losing over 300 games in the past four years takes some steam out of their fan base.

We get it. Winners, not losers, get the crowd buzz. Winners, not losers, get the attention. Those at the front get the goodies when there is a sales rush. Here’s what we don’t get so easily. Jesus uses the word “must”. Whoever wants to be first of all must be last of all and servant of all.” Jesus didn’t say you couldn’t be first. He said you must be last to get there. You must be servant of all to get there.

Then Jesus took a little child and put the child in front of the disciples. He cradled the child in his arms and said “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me”. Don’t get me wrong. Children have always been loved. Children have always been cradled. Children have always been held lovingly, and we have always melted as their baby blues or browns look back at us. They just weren’t the center of attention all the time as they are now. The effort it took to grind the grain and bake the bread and harvest the crops and shepherd the sheep and goats didn’t allow time to sit together in front of television, or just plain time to dote on the kids. In fact, kids were not considered important in Jesus’ day other than as more hands to work. Those under age 2 were not counted in the census.

So Jesus took someone, a child, probably under that age of two, a little being who was not important, and said that greatness comes through paying attention, and holding on to, and welcoming the ones who are unimportant. Hospitality not only goes to the ones we know, and to our relatives, and to those we work with, and to disciples we travel down the road with. Hospitality goes to the most unlikely people, like the children who usually eat someplace else, and the invisible folk who don’t score invitations to eat with us.

We seek out those who cannot do anything to benefit our career. We seek out those who do not do things back for us. This is not an option. It is a must. The kingdom of God is made this way.

Anything else is artificial.

The three basic actions of Lent are fasting, giving alms, and praying. Fasting is a not a word about a new diet plan. It isn’t even limited to food. It can be abstaining from anything that fills our being. Certainly that can be unhealthy or too much food. But it could be fasting from too much television, or fasting from too much internet time, or fasting from too much gaming. Fasting is even more than doing without. It takes the time we spent on food or TV or internet or gaming and fills it with Jesus. It takes that time and fills it with quiet and attentive listening to God, to prayer, to Bible reading, to making caring connections with others we have treated as unimportant.

Alms is giving money without any thought that we will get repaid.

Prayer, well prayer is just taking time to converse with God, just as we talk on our phones or send text messages.

Somewhere, in our Lenten journey, we go from first in line to the end of the line, to serving others rather than being the ones waited on.

And that journey to the end of the line is our Lenten journey this week.



March 1, 2015  

GENESIS 17:1-7, 15-16; ROMANS 4:13-25; MARK 8:31-38

Last Sunday night was the Academy Awards, the much sought after awards from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. One of the nominees for best actress was Reese Witherspoon for her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed, real life writer of the book and the movie with the same title, “Wild”. It was a movie I really did enjoy, even though it is rated R for some of Ms. Strayed’s escapades that were not as wholesome as the goal of the whole walk was portrayer. She was working through her personal demons. Anyway, near the beginning of the movie, about a walk from south to north, California to Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail, a walk begun after the death of her mother at a much too young age, and the unraveling of her marriage, the heroine played by Ms. Witherspoon buys and packs all her hiking gear together, loads up her pack, and gets a ride out to the trailhead. She puts her 80-some pound backpack on, tries to stand up straight, and promptly tumbles over backwards. In real life, the author called this backpack “Monster”, and said it grew to be part of her life. She writes: “Though its weight and size still confounded me, I’d come to accept that it was my burden to bear. I didn’t feel myself in contradiction to it the way I had a month before. It wasn’t me against it. We two were one”

We too were one. Abraham was given the gift of a promise. It’s called a covenant, a promise meant to last that shapes life. We have wedding covenants, and condominium covenants, and land use covenants, just for starters in the legalities of our modern world. And in this place we need to keep reminding one another that we have lasting covenants from God. . Abraham received God’s covenant. That is today’s First Lesson. Actually, if one were to read all of Genesis, it is such a world-defining covenant that God keeps coming back to give Abraham these words of promise 7 different times. It was a sign that God doesn’t give up on us. Last week we heard about Noah and the flood in the first lesson, and now some untold years later, in this week’s first lesson, we receive God’s promise in another covenant. Abraham is given an identity that is not only his hope, but the hope of all his descendents. God wants to have a conversation with God’s people that lasts not just a few years, but centuries. This covenant to Abraham is one of those long-lasting promises meant to spark discussion and conversation for generation upon generation.

A 99-year old man was given a promise of God’s blessing through a family that would ultimately be multitudes big. It had to start with one child in the advanced years of Abram and wife Sarai, and that child and that child’s children would be a blessing to all who come after them. Sometimes this promise seemed like a monster backpack for Abraham. He couldn’t wait. He got his maid pregnant before his wife got pregnant. Hagar and their son Ishmael, who represent Arabic people today, and whom Muslims consider their forbears, are a sign that Abraham couldn’t always deal with the weight of trying to carry the promise. Covenant keeping isn’t always our best attribute of faith. We are all Abrahams who struggle with the monster backpack, and often fall backwards.

And Jesus was a direct descendent of Abraham and Sarah, right in the line of this great promise.. God didn’t ever give up on us, or forget God’s promise, is a huge part of the Good News story. That’s why Mary was told that her child would be Immanuel, God With Us. . Last Wednesday I preached on the message that begins today’s Gospel, where Jesus says that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, after three days rise again”. I talked about how God did not lose on purpose, or passively give up in the face of opposition.. Jesus walked into enemy territory to be God’s mission for us. Jesus was willing to walk into Jerusalem and into the Temple and into the arenas where others would play with his life, just so that God’s work might be done and God could continue for countless more generations to carry on God’s conversation with God’s people.

Today we hear what happened right after those words. Peter decided to instruct Jesus in theology. The taught one decided to go after the teacher. Peter decided to put a stop to this silliness right then and there. It was as if hearing about the cross was a monster backpack and Peter toppled over trying to lift this load.

Jesus was quick to tell Peter that his mind was all caught up in the stuff of human living. God has a different way to teach us about living. Those who want to follow him must learn about God’s way of living. We find out that the God of covenant, the God of Noah and his family, and Abraham and Sarah and their family, is not a God of wrath, but of love and humility and servanthood. Like Cheryl Strayed setting out on the Pacific Coast Trail, not having a clue about the mountains and deserts and snow at the high elevations that are the various parts of the book and the movie, we have no clue what it is to set out to try to follow Jesus. God has been talking to us for centuries, but each generation has deal with our slowness in understanding God’s century old conversation with us. So God came in flesh, with audible words and clear actions, so that we would not be confused about the God who keeps God’s promise. God came in the flesh with real audible words and noticeable actions so that we would not be confused about how God acts in the world. It is always for the children, always for the children, that God works I love.

But this cross thing still does get confusing. It sometimes topples us over, just like it did Peter, like our 80 pound backpack Monster. Is Jesus signing me up for suffering and death? Is Jesus really wanting me to get nailed to a cross? Does Jesus really want me to be humiliated and scorned too? Is that the conversation God wants to have with me?

Perhaps. But it certainly is the way God will converse with us, God in Jesus, God in Pilate’s halls and Herod’s palace and Caiaphus’ chambers, will choose the path of the cross. And that will be where we hear the voice of God, coming from the top side of a cross.

If she only knew what she was getting herself into, Cheryl Strayed and 80 pound backpack tumbling over at the start of the Pacific Crest Trail…..If we only knew what we were getting ourselves into, covenant of God on our back, the trail leading to the cross, well then…….

And that’s right where God picks us up on the trail, and the conversations start.


February 25, 2015  

MARK 8:31 “The son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again…”

Today’s verse comes almost exactly half way through the Gospel of Mark. It is near the end of Chapter 8, out of 16 chapters. These eight chapters have been filled with great and powerful stories about Jesus: he triumphs over Satan in the wilderness; he calls disciples who are so compelled to respond that they leave their occupations and go with him; he casts out demons; he heals people who were hopelessly left out of that day’s medical world; he calms storms on the Sea of Galilee. The list is bigger than that, but I think you have enough acquaintance with the Biblical stories to know what I am saying. This Jesus is more powerful than all that comes up against him.

And when we hear this verse tonight, it follows a high point in the telling of the story of the Good News of Jesus Christ, which is what Mark calls his Gospel book. Jesus has asked his disciples who the people are saying he is. They reply that some say he is Elijah come back, others say Moses, others say one of the great prophets. And then Jesus asks this direct, straight forward and pointed question: Who do you say that I am? And Peter, who often seems impetuous, who seldom can be held back, says an incredible answer, one that is uttered for the first time: You are the Christ, the son of the living God.

Now that would be worth celebrating. If you and I figured out that somebody was a long lost brother or sister, we would be crying and screaming and hugging. When someone asks the question “Will you marry me?”, all of a sudden two people have a new relationship when they say yes. Or when one is picked for a team in sports, or a band or symphony, one has a new relationship with the athletes or the musicians. This moment should have marked a new relationship between Jesus and Peter and the rest of the disciples. But here is how Jesus responds: don’t tell anyone. And he urged them to remain silent. You would have thought that this was the opportune time for a least a great big group hug.

Why is this? WE call this the riddle of Mark, the Messianic secret. Let’s talk about this secret.

When Mark tells the story, as I just shared with the Tuesday morning Bible study group, he takes 5 chapters out of 16 to tell the story of Holy Week. That tells us what is important to Mark. If we are going to know who Jesus is, we need to get to Holy Week. If we want to know the heart and mind of God, and the purpose of Jesus coming to this world, we need Holy Week. We need persecution and flogging and questioning and cross examination and betrayal and crucifixion. Only then can we see humanity clearly, and what we do to God, and only then can we see God clearly.

Miracles, no matter how dazzling, don’t tell us the heart and mind of God. They only show power. No matter how wonderful the casting out of demons and healing of the sick and raising of dead children back into the arms of their parents might be, these demonstrations only confirm our bias. Our bias is always, as humans, to honor power. We love power, we worship power, we adore power. We love those who get away with things, and evade things, and escape things.

But what do we do with servanthood? How do we honor those who serve us?

Mark’s Gospel says that he will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes. These are specific titles for the group, the official representatives who made up the Jewish government.

In their eyes, they were the real Israel. Rome was the impostor. Elders were lay members of the court, chief priests were members of the aristocratic families who ran the Jewish court, and scribes were the professional religious interpreters or lawyers of the day. Their court was called the Sanhedrin, and had 70 members made up of these 3 groups. Jesus was saying that the Jewish court would put him to death.

Later on, just to keep things fully balanced, as the events play out, Mark will also say the Gentiles killed Jesus, meaning the Romans and non-Jews who had political power.

Jesus must come up against the religious power curve of his faith tradition, and he will come up against them by servanthood.

Why would the most powerful God put away God’s power? Why would God submit?

That is the question that brings Lent to our world.

It is the one we should ponder every day. Why God, would you serve me?

Why, God, would you put away your strength to be afflicted? Why, God, would you allow death to become part of your story?

Let me be clear. This persecution and death were not because Jesus gave up. That happened last night. Perhaps you heard today about a girls’ basketball game in Tennessee where each team tried to lose. The game’s winner would have advanced to play a powerhouse team, and by losing, they actually felt they were increasing their odds of advancing in tournament play by getting a lesser opponent for the next game. Both teams were barred from post-season play. No, Jesus wasn’t trying to lose, so to speak, nor was Jesus actively giving up.

What God was doing, God right in front of our eyes, was walking the journey of faith. The whole future of Jesus, even though He was the Christ, the Son of God, just as Peter stated out loud, was to be put into the hands of Almighty God in heaven. So the prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane are not fake prayers. Jesus is really putting himself into the hands of God. The tears over Jerusalem are not fake tears. Jesus is really crying over the fact that they don’t get it, and resist him, and harm him, and turn away from him.

And we have just learned about James Foley, killed by ISIS, first wrote about his Christian faith in an earlier imprisonment, and then in this captivity, converted to Islam. And those who know him say it might have been so he could have safe time for his Christian prayers. What would you do if captured by ISIS simply because you were Christian? You had cross jewelry on when captured. Would you turn away from the faith? Or what would you do, if captured, so to speak, by your classmates who want to know why anyone would go to church? Why would anyone do that? Do you give up your calling?

Jesus knew that the only way to make clear the mind and heart of God was to start walking into enemy territory. He had been in Satan’s domain, out in the wilderness. He had been in his own hometown when they pushed him out of the synagogue and gathered a mob to throw him over the cliff and kill him. He had faced opposition from the start. Now it would come from organized religion.

And He moved ahead, because only in the show down that put life on the line would the world really begin to see what was true, and what was false; what was real faith and what was mere institution; what was truly God and what was a fake God made in our image.

We scarcely understand this. But we don’t have to turn it away. All the time we accept things into our lives we don’t understand. Who truly understands how a cellphone works, but we claim it. Who truly understands how God works, but we receive this wonderful promise, and we ponder what a wonderful God would do just this, for us, be our servant.


LENT 1 B 2015 – FEBRUARY 22, 2015 OSLC

February 22, 2015  

We just started Lent this past Wednesday with ashes and prayer and Holy Communion on the day we call Ash Wednesday. We heard difficult words that are true and sobering: from dust you came, and to dust you will return.

Ashes are the Biblical sign of repentance. But repentance isn’t necessarily a dying move. The whole story of Jonah in the Old Testament isn’t really focusing on a large fish and Jonah as fish food. It is about repentance, and Jonah’s struggle to go proclaim that to the city of the enemy, Nineveh. But after the detour involving that big fish and other struggles, when Jonah finally talked with the Ninevites about it, they repented. A city was saved. The whole city repented and sat in sack cloth and ashes.

Ashes are a sign of death, of fragility. They clearly suggest something that doesn’t last. Clear back in Genesis, God told Adam “Dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Lent imposes on us the unpleasant fact that we will expend an unbelievable amount of time and money to avoid the fact that we are dust. We aren’t going to last.

So we had ashes put on us this past Wednesday. The word we use is imposed, because we get bumped into by something we would rather avoid, the imposition of ashes. And we get other truths imposed on us as well, and that is the joy we get to proclaim in this place over and over. Nothing will separate us, not even life or death, from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So Jesus comes to share our humanity, and that includes physical pain and very real death. Nothing will separate us from the love of God. God comes into our world as Jesus and Jesus stands with us, knee deep in our mortality, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, that God might save us and bring us close to God.

Today we hear that so wonderfully in the story of Jesus’ baptism. Many years ago my dream job was to be a life guard. In my small community, the swimming pool is where we met all summer. It was where farm and town folk met. It was where class mates came to mingle. We did as much laying around on the cement listening to the top 10 hits as we spent time in the water. So the dream job was to be there all day, seeing everyone and staying connected.

So I signed up as a 16 year old for the tough classes of Red Cross life saving. They were held in the morning in days when the pool wasn’t heated. We froze in that water, but I got my dream job. I was certified as a life guard.

And one of the main rules we learned was this: when you see someone in difficulty in the water, you don’t get in the water with them if it can be helped. You throw a buoy, you extend a pole, you toss a rope, you get flotation right to them. You reach out to them as much as humanly possible. Only as a last resort do you get in the water with them. Why? Because drowning people have a tendency to drag you down with them. Drowning people tend to drown their saviors. In desperation and panic, they will climb on anything to get out of the water, and that includes human life savers. So I weighed 120 pounds, as I think with smiles on their faces, they kept using 250 pounders as the flailing people in the water, trying to show how easy it was to drag me down with them.

So here is what happens in the Baptism of Jesus. Scholars constantly argue about why God would need to be baptized, but let me simply say that Jesus is jumping into the water to save us. It is the last resort, and Jesus is willing to be piled on, climbed on, pulled down into the water to save us. He goes there willingly, knowing that to join us in baptismal water will cost him his life.

So what does God do to get out attention? God could easily have sent a Messiah who was a scolder, a person who would be thoroughly justified in saying that God is ticked off at us and wants to punish us. But we get someone who jumps in the water with us and for us.

And then He comes out of the water and begins to publicly speak. Here are Jesus’ first words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

What good news? That God will jump into the troubled waters of our world, willing to die to save us. The good news is that God will be one of us, dripping wet, walking the walk we find so hard to do when we get out of the water.

The kingdom is here, and it starts to include us with baptism. And it continues with repentance, our daily acknowledgement that we are not avoiding trouble nor keeping our lives pure and sinless.

The kingdom is here. Jesus has jumped into the water. We are rescued and saved. We have a new chance at life. That is the message we celebrate in every single worship service, and Lent is here, to remind us again that we are living again, thanks to Jesus.



February 19, 2015  

You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling’

Whoa, that lovin’ feeling.

You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling,

Now it’s gone, gone, gone, oh oh oh.


50 years ago, this song sung by the Righteous Brothers became the #1 hit in America.

Maybe it would make a good theme for Lent. We’ve lost that loving feeling.

At least, that’s one message behind much of our Scripture on this Ash Wednesday.

From Isaiah, there is a call to a nation of God’s people not to neglect or forsake acting in the ways of righteousness.

Righteousness is one of those big Biblical words that mean something special, and it’s a word we show know. Righteousness is a conduct that doesn’t jerk around day by day, but it has a consistent focus, and that focus is showing the world that the living God is in charge of our life. It isn’t enough to shorten the word to holy, as if we are special and set apart in some more perfect way. That is certainly part of it. We are indeed chosen by God. That should be at the center of how we define our existence: chosen by God, called by God, marked by God, washed by God, launched by God.

Righteousness doesn’t mean that artists are going to make statues of us and put them in front of churches. Righteousness doesn’t even mean that people will name churches after us, although I do personally like the ring of St. Mark’s. Righteousness means we constantly ask ourselves the question “How do I live to tell the world that God is real in my life?”, and then act accordingly, by the help of God.

And of course, Isaiah tells the people who know that righteousness is a wonderful calling for both people and nations, that they need to humble themselves. That is what we are doing today. It is a bit humbling, isn’t it, to walk out of church with a black cross on our foreheads.

Isaiah asks the question: Why do we fast, but the world doesn’t notice, nor do we figure out why we are doing it and what it means? Exactly why are we going to get ashes today? And he tells us the age-old answer, which is precisely our age-old problem, as new as today. We don’t notice. I bet back then they were too busy making a living to notice, just like today. Or they were too busy just surviving. I don’t think the predicament of human existence has changed much at all in 3,000 years.

Why do we fast, asks Isaiah? Because we are making choices that are not God’s choices. We are forgetting that righteousness is not about me, meaning how good I am and how much other people respect me for that. Righteousness is about re-creating the world in God’s image. Righteousness is about loosing the bonds of injustice, about undoing the thongs of the yokes that put people in bondage, about letting oppressed go free. Righteousness is about sharing bread with the hungry, and bringing homeless into our houses, and seeing the naked, which really means people not able to be dressed to go out in public, and clothing them with what they need.

And then, dear people, we will be back in right relationship with God, and God will hear us and we will be re-connected.

So let’s hear this call, and be connected with God today.

Because, let’s face it. We’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.

Paul, in his second letter to the Christians trying to figure out righteousness in Corinth, entreats them. He pleads with them, cajoles them, begs them, to see that now is the acceptable time of salvation. Folks, you don’t have to wait for something more. This is God’s time right now. And then follows the whole list of excuses we use about why we would go on some kind of spiritual detour: afflictions, meaning who doesn’t let the flu and colds and worse become an excuse; and hardships, and calamities, and sleepless nights, and hunger, and worse: beatings and riots and more. Do you see yourself in that list someplace? Come on, God, you don’t expect me to be concerned about being a living sign to the world of your presence when life is this lousy, do you? This is more than ‘my dog ate my homework’ kind of excuse to God. This is Paul speaking the truth. We use the everyday struggles of our personal world to say, “God, I deserve a rain check on this righteousness stuff. God, give me a pass today.”

And Paul reminds the Christians that they have all the power of God right at hand. They do not need to be overwhelmed. In fact, they don’t need excuses. The weapons and power and strength of righteousness and living as God’s people are within reach. Purity and knowledge and patience and kindness and holiness of spirit and genuine love and rightful speech are right here. God has come close to us in Jesus Christ, and given them to us. The power of God is given to us. It is as if Paul were saying, you’ve got the medicine in your medicine closets. Open the door and just take the stuff. Use what you have been given.

And our Gospel from St. Matthew, in the section we call the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus’ kind words to say that we don’t need to let the whole world know that we are working on this righteousness thing. We don’t need to hold out a mirror, or use public venues to do religious stuff, or sound all preachy and churchy when we talk, or go around all hang-dog and scruffy so that everyone asks us what we are doing, and we say, well guess what, I’m fasting today.

And don’t try to think of life as a spiritual bank, either, where you pile up all these good things you are trying to do, Jesus said, like some super-big job application for the holiness club. Just let your heart be the place where God dwells, and where the motivation for living comes, and where you hear God guide your next move. That’s all.

Join me again:

You’ve lost that loving feeling……whoa, you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling…..

So Lent begins today, with honesty before God.

We hear God tell us the truth, and pray together, dear God, let me love the world, its creatures, and its people, just like you do. Jesus, show me the way today, and oh yes, if that way has something about a cross in it, dear God, let my heart be strong enough to walk with you.

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