With Beasts and Angels

Mark 1:9-15

The first time I ever slept out under the stars I was in Cub Scouts.  Scouts go camping.  It’s what they do.  So when our little Cub den was still brand new, it was decided that the dads and the boys should go on a campout.  I think the moms were the ones who decided that.  And so it came to pass that one Friday afternoon in mid May a gaggle of excited boys and their job-frazzled dads made their way to O’Neill Regional Park in the wild foothills of Orange County.  

The dads, in their wisdom, had decided that, since it was May and there was no rain in the forecast, tents were not necessary.  So when it was time for bed we simply rolled out our sleeping bags on top of tarps and climbed in.  The boys, of course, were sent to bed before the dads who stayed up for quite a while, talking and smoking around the campfire.  

I remember lying there in my bag looking up through twisted oak branches into the night sky.  It was a clear night, moonless, vast and deep, with no clouds between us and the stars, and as I lay there, bundled in my bag, I became uncomfortably aware that there was no roof above me and no walls around me.  What had seemed like a fun idea when we were just talking about it was turning out to be a little bit scary.  Not that I would ever admit that.

I could hear the dads talking quietly over by the campfire.  But I could hear other things, too.  Things rustling in the trees and the scrub.  I knew I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was wide awake with worries and questions too big and too frightening for my eight-year-old mind under that deep, moonless sky. 

Finally, I heard the conversation at the campfire breaking up and the dads saying goodnight.  And then my dad was climbing into his bag next to mine.  “Dad?”  I said.  

“Are you still awake?” he asked.  

“Yeah.  Dad, can I ask you something?” 

“What?”  

“Are there wild animals here?” 

There was a long pause and I was about to ask him again but he quietly said, “Um hm.  Yep.”

“Well like…what kind?”

“Oh… coyotes, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, racoons, possums, skunks.”

“Coyotes, bears and mountain lions?”

“Look, you don’t need to worry about bears or coyotes or mountain lions.  They don’t like to get too close to people in groups.  We’re okay.  They won’t bother us.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  

“Now make sure you tuck in that corner of your sleeping bag.  You don’t want a snake or a scorpion crawling in with you in the middle of the night.  Now goodnight.  Go to sleep.”

Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.  I wonder what kind of noises he heard in the night.

When Jesus rises out of the waters of the Jordan at his baptism, he is a new person.  Not merely a new person, but a new kind of person.  The Spirit has descended into him—that’s what it says in Greek, into him—so he is possessed by the Spirit.  The voice of the Holy One has declared his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  From this moment on, Jesus is a new kind of human, a new creation.  From this moment on in Mark’s gospel, he will refer to himself as the Human One, or as we used to translate it, the Son of Man.  

St. Paul described Jesus as the first-born of a new humanity.  In 1 Corinthians 15, he refers to Jesus as the “last Adam.”  In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul made it clear that inclusion in this new humanity is extended to all of us who are baptized into Christ.  He writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The identity declared to Jesus in his baptism is extended to you and to me in our baptism.  When we are baptized, the Spirit is imparted to us and we, too, hear the words, “You are God’s child.  You are beloved. God is pleased with you.”  And in that word and by that Spirit we are made a new creation.

So if I’m new, why is it that on so many days I feel so old?

Well, I think it’s because of what comes next.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”  

The Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness where he was tested by the Adversary. The opposition.  

The word that’s translated as “tempted,” peirazō, can also be translated as “tested.”  Tested and tempted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  A temptation may be a test, but a test doesn’t have to be a temptation.  Testing may be done to try to learn the nature of someone or something.  To assess their character.  To take their measure. Temptation is an effort to lead someone into sin.  It’s true that in Matthew and Luke he is clearly being tempted.  But here in Mark I get the sense that something more subtle is going on, which is why I think Mark doesn’t go into details.

Mark says he was tested by Satan.  Satan as a Hebrew noun means “adversary.”  As a verb it means “to oppose” or “to be hostile.”  So Jesus, the New Human, fresh from his baptism, was thrown into the wilderness by the Spirit to be challenged by the opposition.  I don’t think we need to dwell too much on how that opposition appeared to him, because I think sometimes we face it, too.

Forty days is a long time to be in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time to be alone with your thoughts.   I think we can imagine at least some of the voices Jesus may have heard because we hear them too.  You know the ones.  The ones that catch you off guard when you’re tired and vulnerable. The ones that sneak in between  your thoughts.  The ones that ask, “Are you really a child of God?  Are you really beloved?  If God is so well-pleased with you, why are you having such a rough time here?”

There’s nothing you can do with those voices except confront them.  Don’t try to debate them.  Whenever Martin Luther was challenged by these voices, which was apparently fairly often, he would just make the sign of the cross over himself and simply state, “I am a baptized child of God.”  Sometimes he would add, “Now go away and leave me alone.”  One time he did throw an ink pot at the shadow bedeviling him, but that makes a huge mess, so I don’t recommend it.

After you come to terms with those voices that challenge your identity as a child of God, after you’ve anchored that piece of your self-understanding in quiet confidence, the Adversary may come at you with the big, hanging question.  “Okay.  You really are a child of God.  You really are beloved.  So now what?  What are you going to do about it?”

I think that might have been the thing that tested Jesus most during those 40 days: the Now What question, thinking about how he was going to live out his identity as the Human One, thinking about how and when and where he was going to exercise his power so that his work opposing power didn’t become all about power. 

Sometimes, like Jesus, we find ourselves thrown into the wilderness.  Most often we don’t choose to be there.  Stuff happens.  Opposition happens.  Pain happens.  Illness happens.  Accidents happen.  Death happens.  Pandemics happen.  Suddenly, we’re in the wilderness and we hear wild beasts in the night.

But the wilderness can be where we learn what it really means to be God’s children.  Sometimes the hard, flinty places of life are where we realize that being loved by God doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll always be comfortable.  These are the places where we learn to trust.  But learning to trust takes time.  It takes practice, learning to sit through the night wrapped in love you can’t feel from a God you can’t see providing a kind of protection you don’t understand. 

You can only learn that when you feel vulnerable.  You can only learn that in the wilderness.  You can only learn that where the wild beasts are, real and metaphorical.

Mark is the only one of the gospel writers who notes that Jesus “was with the wild beasts.”  I’ve read interesting interpretations of that line.  Some think it’s a reference to the book of Daniel where the kings of the nations are represented as wild beasts.  So maybe this line suggests that Jesus was considering how to confront political authority. Could be.  Some have wondered if Mark is suggesting that Jesus was having an experience something like a Native American vision quest.  

These are interesting ideas and they have their merits.  But I wonder if it isn’t just that there really were wild beasts.

Even today there are still leopards and hyenas in the Judean wilderness.  In Jesus’ day there were also lions, bears and cheetahs.  So in addition to confronting The Adversary in whatever form The Adversary happened to take, maybe Jesus was also coming to terms with the predatory creatures of the wilderness.  Perhaps Jesus in the wilderness was finding some kind of relationship with those beasts, reminding them and himself that they shared a connection with God and that they had no reason to fear each other.

Howard Thurman said it this way in Disciplines of the Spirit: “To Jesus, God was Creator of life and the living substance, the Living Stream upon which all things moved, the Mind containing time, space, and all their multitudinous offspring. And beyond all these, He was Friend and Father.”  Perhaps, like Saint Francis, Jesus saw these wild beasts as brothers and sisters.

I remember one night lying in a tent in Ngorongoro Preserve in Tanzania.  I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I was a little nervous, because I knew that outside the tent there were wild animals.  I knew they were there because I had seen them as we drove through the Preserve that day.  Elephants. Leopards.  Baboons.  Lions.  Wildebeest.  Hyenas.  It didn’t help my nervousness any that I could hear the gibbering of a pack of hyenas not too far from our camp.  And, of course, as I was lying there thinking of the thousand and one ways to die by animal, I realized that nature was calling in a more personal way and I really needed to go to the latrine. Which was at the other end of our camp.  Well, I put on my shoes, and left the tent and did what needed doing, praying all the way.

When I got back to my tent, I stopped and stood outside, looking out into the African night, and listening.  The hyenas were still gibbering, but it didn’t sound as menacing.  It really did sound kind of like laughter.  I could hear the soft rumbling and shuffling from a small family of elephants about a hundred yards away from us.  It was an almost friendly sound.  Somehow, as I had prayed my way to the latrine and back, my anxiety about the wild beasts in the dark had disappeared.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see one of our guides sitting on duffle bags in the back of the supply truck with a rifle resting across his lap.  He smiled and waved, then pointed at me and laid his face against the back of his folded hands in the universal gesture for sleep.  “Go back to bed,” he said without words. “I got this.”

“And the angels waited on him.”  There were angels with Jesus in the wilderness.  There always are.   Even in the valley of shadows, in the places with wild beasts, in the times and places of hunger and anxiety—even in the wilderness,  God’s messengers show up.  They come in all kinds of different ways and in unexpected forms.  And we don’t always recognize them.  But they come.

Do you recognize your angels?  Do you know them when they minister to you, when they show up bearing the love of God in some tangible form?  Do you recognize them when they remind you that you are God’s beloved child and that you are not alone in the time of testing, in the night full of wild beasts? 

Throughout our journey of Lent and beyond, may we walk with Christ.  May these 40 days remind us of what it means to be a new creation.  May we realize that God is also present in the wilderness of our challenges—when the Adversary in whatever form opposes us, may we remember that we, too, have been filled with the Spirit and heard the voice that proclaims us beloved.  When we hear the sounds of wild things all around us, may we remember that they, too, are created by God and loved by God.  And when we need it most, may we be waited on by angels.

In Jesus’ name.

A Season of Fasting

One year when I was serving in the Church Relations Office at California Lutheran University we decided to put together a Lenten devotional that could be emailed in daily installments to students, faculty, staff, and patrons.  Most of the feedback was positive.  One student, however, wrote us a rather heated letter.  He was not only opposed to our Lenten devotional, he was opposed to Lent.  “There is nothing in the Bible about Lent,” he wrote.  “It is a thing made up by the church.  If it is not in the Bible, we should not do it.” 

I wrote back what I hope was a gentle letter explaining that the practice of setting aside a time for fasting and preparation before the celebration of Easter was, in fact, one of the earliest practices of the church.  I also explained that it was the Church that gathered and assembled the books into the sacred library we call the Bible, but that there was nothing like an official agreement on which books were included and which were excluded until the Council of Rome in 382 CE.  So, even though the individual books of the Bible might be older, I explained, the followers of Jesus have been practicing Lent longer than they’ve had a Bible.  

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent.  There are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, but the season of Lent is only 40 days.  That’s because the six Sundays are not included in the fasting of Lent.  They are, though, included in the liturgical observation of the season.  We don’t sing the Gloria or the Alleluia during Lent.  In some traditions, the Alleluia is symbolically buried in a casket under the altar during this season and is “resurrected” for the celebration of Easter.

We begin our observance of Lent by marking ourselves with ashes.  Ashes have been a symbol since ancient times of grief and sorrow.  They also serve as a sign  of humility, or of repentance.  On Ash Wednesday we stand humbly before God and remember that we are both sinful and mortal.  

In Genesis, when God is escorting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and into a life of difficulty, God says to them, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (3:19)

Later in Genesis when Abraham is bargaining with God and trying to keep God from destroying Sodom, Abraham says, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (18:27)  These are the words we quote as we mark ourselves with ashes.

Job, after his trials and tribulations, finally sees God’s majesty revealed and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Jeremiah, when he’s calling the people of Judah to repent and warning them of the destruction that is coming upon them, cries out, O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”

In the book of Daniel, when Daniel is preparing to ask God to intervene and show mercy for his people, he writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.”

Ashes continued to be used as a sign of contrition in the early church.  Tertullian (c. 160-225) included sackcloth and ashes in the rite of repentance.  Around the year 800, those who had committed serious sins were covered in sackcloth and sprinkled with ashes before they were allowed to receive Holy Communion at Easter.  Sometime around the year 1000, as Lent came to be viewed as a season of penance, the practice of strewing ashes on the head was extended to the entire congregation.

Ashes remind us that because we are mortal, our life, our strength and our help come from God.  They open the doorway into Lent,  a time when we reflect on the way of Jesus and follow his path and listen to him more closely.

Lent is a time when we renew our practice of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting. 

There are a variety of ways to fast.  The traditional practice of many has been to give up meat during this time.  It has been the practice of some to have two small meals during the day then break the fast after sunset.  Some people simply give up something they’re attached to for the 40 days:  chocolate, television, podcasts, Facebook.  You can fast from anything that’s a daily part of your life.  The idea is to set that thing aside and give its space to Christ.  For instance, if you’re giving up lunch for the 40 days, then during that lunch hour you can spend time in prayer or meditation.  

On Sundays and Feast Days we get a break from fasting.  So if you’re giving up red meat for Lent, you can still have a bite of corned beef on the Feast of St. Patrick!

This time of fasting and preparation before Easter may have originated in the preparation for baptism.  The Didcache, a Syrian manual of church practice that dates to about the year 100, instructs that both those who are being baptized and those who are baptizing should fast for one or two days before the baptism.

At some point early on baptisms became tied to Easter.  Lent, then, became a time to prepare for baptism.  The practice of this, though, was far from uniform.  In Alexandria, Athanasius required his catechumens to prepare for 40 days, studying for 3 hours each day.  In other places, though, the preparation might be as little as a a week. 

At the Council of Nicaea in 325, in addition to establishing the doctrine of the Trinity, several important matters of church order and practice were standardized.  One of the things that was decided was how the date of Easter should be determined.  While they were at it, the bishops also agreed that Lent should be 40 days leading up to Easter.  

They didn’t call it Lent, by the way.  That’s our English word from the Old English word Lencten,  for Spring.  The Eastern bishops called it Tessarakosti and the Western bishops called it Quadragesima.  Both mean 40 days.

So why 40 days?

Though the Bible as such had not been assembled yet, the bishops at Nicaea were very familiar with the texts that would eventually be included in it.  They knew that the number 40 in these sacred texts represented a period of testing, trial, judgment, or probation.  In particular they were mindful of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry.

The number 40 occurs 146 times in the scriptures.  Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and 40 years in Midian before God called him to lead his people out of slavery.  He stayed on Mount Sinai with God and fasted for 40 days.  The Hebrew people wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land.

Elijah spent 40 days and 40 nights walking to Mount Horeb.  Jonah’s prophecy to Nineveh gave them 40 days to repent or be destroyed.

Forty days may seem like a long time to fast, but there was also a practical reason for it.  In the days before refrigeration and food preservation, and in times when it wasn’t easy or inexpensive to ship food from other places, this would be the time of year when supplies of some foods, especially grains, vegetables and fruits would start to run low.  Fasting for an extended period could help to stretch these supplies until the new crops, especially the early grains, began to produce.

So are you planning to take up a spiritual discipline during Lent?  Are you thinking about praying more?  Meditating more?  Giving more?  Reading a devotional?   Here’s a suggestion:  Practice the discipline of kindness.  Be kind.  Practice having a generous spirit.  

Are you thinking of fasting?  It’s a worthwhile discipline and you can learn a lot about yourself by doing it.  But if giving up chocolate or television or meat or anything like that seems like it might be too much of a challenge, let me pass along this list of Suggestions for Fasting During Lent from Pope Francis:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God.

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.

Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

This is a good time to listen.  

Listen to the message of the ashes.  The message of our mortality doesn’t have to be bad news.  God has breathed life into dust and ashes.  

Listen to our history.  We are part of a very long story that is still unfolding.  

Listen to Jesus.  He has called us to renew the world…and to be renewed ourselves.

Listen

Mark 9:2-9

Have you ever sung in a choir or played in an orchestra?  If you have, you’ve probably had a moment when you realized that you were, for all intents and purposes, part of one large instrument.  Your voice in the choir was like one pipe in an organ.  You were part of one large, organic instrument comprised of many voices, all being played by the director or conductor.  It’s a wonderful experience to be part of something like that, to know that you’re part of something large and beautiful and organic which, if it’s done right, can, in its magical way, completely transport people.  It’s a humbling feeling to know that you are helping to bring this powerful yet ephemeral thing into the world, a thing composed only of sound, a thing that was not in the world before the conductor raised his baton and will vanish when he cuts off the last note and its echoes die in the hall.  

It’s an amazing experience.  And it all works beautifully as long as everyone learns their part.  And they all follow the conductor.  And they all play or sing the same piece.  All it takes for things to start to unravel, though, is for someone to decide they’re not happy with the conductor.  Little rebellions lead to great ones.  It can start with something as minor as the woodwinds rushing the conductor’s beat.  It could end with the disgruntled first trumpet player playing Trumpet Voluntary in the middle of Mozart’s Requiem. 

That seems to be Peter’s problem here in the middle of Mark’s gospel.  He’s not happy with the conductor.  He has been traveling with Jesus for a while now.  He has watched him feed multitudes of people.  Twice.  He has seen him walk on the sea.  He has watched Jesus cast out demons and heal people.  So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter naturally replies, “You are the Messiah!”  It seems like the obvious answer.  After all, who else could do all those things?  But Jesus is less than enthusiastic with Peter’s answer, at least in Mark’s version of the story.  He sternly orders his disciples not to talk about it.  “No Messiah talk.  Are we clear?”

That didn’t sit well with Peter.  And then Jesus starts to tell his disciples and everybody else that he’s going to go to Jerusalem to confront the power structure of the temple, they’re going to reject him, and abuse him, and then he’s going to be crucified and on the third day rise again.  

No one wants to hear that.  That’s crazy talk. Peter cannot bring himself to sing along with that chorus.  He will not.  He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  

Think about that a minute.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  And apparently the other disciples are kind of half-way behind Peter on this one.  Mark writes, “But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Jesus has a few more things to say to his disciples and the crowd about what it takes to be a disciple—namely, a willingness to take up the cross.  But Peter and the disciples are silent.

Peter rebukes Jesus.  Then Jesus rebukes Peter.

And then silence.  Six days of silence.

It’s easy to miss that.  Things move fast in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus moves quickly from one thing to the next.  The phrase “and immediately” occurs frequently.  But not here.  

Six days later.  Six days of tension between Jesus and Peter?  Six days of anxiety for the disciples? Mark doesn’t say.  Mark is silent.  And maybe they were, too.

Finally, Jesus decides that Peter needs a “come to Jesus” meeting.  Or a come with Jesus moment.  So he asks Peter, James and John to come with him up the mountain.

And there on the mountain they see him transfigured—shining white and radiant, light within and light without,  they see who their teacher really is inside his humanity.  They see Moses and Elijah, the law-bringer and the great prophet, the two most important figures in the history of their people, appear with him and converse with him.  

Peter, whose default mode seems to be talk-first-think-later, babbles out, “Lord, it’s a good thing that we’re here!  Let’s make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…”  Mark tells us he didn’t know what he was saying because he was terrified.  Well you would be, wouldn’t you.  

And then all of a sudden there is a cloud throwing a shadow over them.  All the brightness is dimmed.  And a voice comes out of the cloud and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.”

And as suddenly as it all started, it’s over.  There’s no one there but Jesus.  And as they head back down the mountain he tells them not to tell anyone about what they’ve seen until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”

It took a lot to get through to Peter.  It took six days of silence and a hike up the mountain.  It took seeing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah as he was shining like the sun.  It took hearing the voice of God speaking to him from a cloud saying, “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  Listen to him!” 

That’s what it took to get Peter to play the same tune and follow the conductor.

Is that what it takes for us?

There have always been people who try to bend Jesus to their agenda instead of bending themselves to the way of Jesus.  There have always been people who call themselves Christian who don’t seem to listen much to Jesus.

For a long time now we have seen a strain of pseudo-Christianity in this country and around the world that has little to do with the teaching of Jesus as we encounter him in the gospels.  It is based on triumphalism and a theology of glory.  It worships and celebrates power and ignores the call to enter the into world’s trials and suffering as Christ entered into our trials and suffering.  It walks hand-in-hand with nationalism and, often, racism.  It sees baptism as a get out of hell free card and not as a way of life in the beloved community.  It has co-opted the name Christian and Christian language but has not learned to do justice, to love kindness or to walk humbly with God—to love the neighbor as oneself. 

So many, like Peter, want a militant messiah.  But that’s not the way God does things.  That’s not the way of Jesus.

Six days before their trip up the mountain, after Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus rebuked him back, Jesus had this to say to the crowd that had been gathered around them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for your life?”

Jesus was not giving a recruitment speech designed to conjure the rewards and glories of conquest and victory.  He was issuing a realist’s invitation to a subversive movement where participation could have deadly consequences.  He was calling them, and is calling us still, to confront the powers and systems that oppress and marginalize and antagonize and lie to people wherever we find those powers and systems.  Following Jesus can be dangerous.  Listening to him can put you at odds with family and friends.  It can complicate your life.  But your life will be meaningful. 

Jesus wanted to make it clear that he was not a white-horse-sword-in-hand messiah.  He wanted his disciples and everyone else to understand that his way of confronting injustice and oppression was to free people from its weight, heal their wounds, and then simply stand in front of the powers and speak the truth.  That was the music he was bringing.  That was the song he wanted the world to sing with him.  Peter didn’t like that song at all.  He wanted the White Horse and Sword Cantata.  

So six days later, Jesus took him up the mountain to show him who he was really arguing with.  And so he could hear the voice.

Sometimes we all need to be reminded that Jesus leads and we follow, that he’s the conductor and we’re the players in the orchestra and singers in the choir.  Sometimes we all need to go up the mountain to be reminded of who Jesus is inside his humanity.  Sometimes we all need to be reminded of those words from the cloud: “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  Listen to him.”  

Especially those last words. 

“Listen to him.”

And She Began to Serve

Mark 1:29-39

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Two simple sentences.  And like so much of Mark’s gospel, a surprising amount of action in surprisingly few words. 

After preaching with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, then casting out an unclean spirit from a man who interrupted him, Jesus is ready for a break.  So he goes to the house of his new disciples, Peter and Andrew.  It happens that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick.  She’s in bed with a fever.  They tell Jesus about her right away and Jesus goes to her.

And here is where the translation maybe is not our friend.  “He took her by the hand” sounds much gentler than what it says in the original language.  Kratésas it says in the Greek.  Kratéo is the verb.  It’s not a tender word.  It means to grasp firmly or strongly.  

And then it says he “lifted her up.”  Which is fine.  But again, something is lost in translation.  The verb Mark used is egeiro.  It’s the same word Jesus will use when he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and says, “Little girl, get up!”  It’s the same word the angel will use to tell the women that Jesus is not in the empty tomb because he is raised up—egeiro.  

So maybe this isn’t quite the gentle scene I had always imagined.  Maybe this is a scene full of strength and energy and power.  Jesus grasped her strongly, firmly by the hand and raised her.  

Then the fever left her.

And she began to serve them.

It’s tempting to get a little upset about that last part—she began to serve them.  After all, she’s just been sick with a fever.  And now here are all these guys who come traipsing into the house and because of the expectations of the society they live in, she jumps out of her sickbed to rustle up some dinner for them.  Oh, and by the way, does anybody care that it’s still the Sabbath?

Some commentators have pointed out that she would be happy to do this because in a culture where roles are clearly defined she could now resume her place as matriarch of the household along with all the social currency that comes with that.

But again, there’s something going on in the language that deserves a moment of attention.  It’s a little thing.  But, as I’ve been learning, Mark often uses these subtle little things to make big points.  In this case, it has to do with the word “serve.”  Here’s how Ched Myers explains it in his book, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship—

“Peter’s mother-in-law is the first woman to appear in Mark’s narrative.  We are told that upon being touched by Jesus, “she served him(1:31).  Most commentators, steeped in patriarchal theology, assume that this means she fixed Jesus dinner.  However the Greek verb “to serve” (from which we get our word “deacon”_ appears only two other times in Mark.  One is in 10:45—“The Human One came not to be served but to serve”—a context hardly suggesting meal preparation.

“Mark describes women ‘who, when Jesus was in Galilee, followed him, and served him, and…came up to Jerusalem with him’ (15:41).  This is a summary statement of discipleship:  from beginning (Galilee) to end (Jerusalem) these women were true followers who, unlike the men (see 10:32-45) practiced servanthood.”

So here is Peter’s mother-in-law—sadly we don’t have her name—but Mark identifies her service with a word that implies that there is a sacred aspect to her serving, a holiness that springs not from her sense of duty, but her faith.  She is a deacon.  

In Mark’s gospel, the men surrounding Jesus are often argumentative and a little dense.  But the women, though not mentioned often, are astute and faithful.  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week.  This week we had a graveside service for Barbara, one of those astute and faithful women who have kept the ministry of Jesus alive and well in this world for more than 20 centuries.  As I conducted her service I was wearing one of the stoles she wove for me on her loom, and it made me think of Tabitha who we read about in the book of Acts.  She was much loved by her community in Joppa, and when they summoned Peter to pray for her, they showed him all the tunics and other clothing she had made for people.

I thought of the women mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who travelled with Jesus and supported Jesus and the disciples financially.  Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, Luke says, who provided for them out of their resources.  

These women came to be called the Myrrh Bearers because they were the ones who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body after the crucifixion, but found it empty.

Mary Magdalen was known to be particularly close to Jesus and was regarded as an Apostle by many in the early church until patriarchy asserted itself, suppressed her influence, and sullied her reputation by spreading the story that she had been a prostitute.  But it was Mary Magdalen, according to the Gospel of John, who first encountered the risen Jesus.  It was Mary Magdalen who first proclaimed his resurrection, making her the first evangelist.

Another Mary who was part of this group of women disciples, was Mary, the wife of  Cleopas.  If tradition is correct, her husband was the brother of Joseph, Jesus’ foster father, so she was the sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother, Mary.  She, too, was a Myrrh Bearer and is probably the unidentified person traveling with Cleopas on the road to Emmaus in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel, making her one of the first witnesses to the resurrection.

Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza is someone we know a little more about.  We see her later identified in the letters of the Apostle Paul where he uses her Roman name, Junia.  Paul says she is prominent among the Apostles and that she knew Christ before he did (Romans 16:7).   In Junia we see someone remarkable, a woman disciple of Jesus who travelled with him in his ministry,  and continued in ministry as an Apostle, travelling as far as Rome for the cause of the gospel.

Priscilla and her husband Aquila are mentioned six times in the New Testament.  Priscilla is mentioned first four of those times, and it’s clear that she is a full partner in their work together for the sake of the gospel.  Tradition includes them among the 70 that Jesus sent out on a mission in the Gospel of Luke.  Priscilla, also called Prisca, her more formal name, has always been considered one of the first women preachers in the church.  We read in Acts 18:24-28 that she, along with Aquila, instructed Apollos in the faith.  There is even a theory that she is the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Phoebe was an overseer and deacon in the Church at Cenchreae.   St. Paul referred to her in Romans 16 as a deacon and a patron of many.  This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman was referred to with both those titles. Diakonos kai prostateis.  A chief, a leader, a guardian, a protector.  St. Paul had such trust in her that he provided her with credentials so that she could serve as his emissary to Rome, and deliver his letter to them—that letter we know as the Epistle to the Romans.

Lydia of Thyatira, was a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, who welcomed St. Paul and his companions into her home at Phillipi and became a convert.  In doing so, she helped to establish the church at Phillipi, the first church in continental Europe.

In that church at Philippi were two women, Euodia and Syntyche who were serving in positions of pastoral leadership.  At some point they got into a disagreement. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” so that their disagreement doesn’t split the church.  In calling them to unity, he notes that they have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”

Jesus took Peter’s mother-in-law in his firm grip and raised her up.  And she began to serve.  She became a deacon.  She began making sure things got done.  Making sure ministry happened.  And it’s the women who have been making sure things get done and ministry happens ever since.

Fifty years ago, our denomination began to ordain women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  To be pastors.  On the one hand, it seemed then—and to some people it still seems—like a bold and progressive thing to do.  But when you look at the witness of the New Testament itself and what we have learned about the roles that women played in the earliest years of the church…well let’s just say that it was shamefully long overdue.

I think of the women I’m indebted to in my ministry.  I think of all the women teachers I’ve had, like Dr. Martha Ellen “Marty” Stortz, professor of Church history who opened my eyes to the rich goldmine of our heritage.  I think of the women scholars and writers I turn to for thought-provoking insights in theology and biblical studies.  Women like Debi Thomas, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, Roberta Bondi, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Amy-Jill Levine.  I think of my women clergy colleagues who are so amazing and indispensable as we puzzle our way through the week’s texts and the week’s issues, and life in the church.

I think of the women in our congregation who make things happen.  Without whom things would not happen.  The Tabithas, the Junias, the Priscillas, the Marys, the Pheobes. The Myrrh Bearers.  The Apostles in our midst.

I think of them all.  And I am so grateful.

Jesus has grasped them by the hand and raised them up.  And they have served.  Showing the presence of Christ and proclaiming the kin-dom of God.  And we are all richer for it. 

How Do You Read It?

In the Gospel of Luke in chapter 10, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.   Jesus responds by asking the lawyer a question: “What is written in the law?  What do you read there?”  At least that’s how it’s translated in the NRSV.  A better translation, though, would be “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”

How do you read it?  How do you interpret it?  How do you understand it?  The lawyer replies to Jesus by quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Then Jesus says him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But this is when the lawyer really begins to answer the second part of the question “How do you read it?” because this is where he starts to look for wiggle room.  Wanting to justify himself, Luke tells us, he asks, “But who is my neighbor?”  And that’s what prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Assaulted Traveler. You know it by another name.  But I’ll come back to that.

A man was travelling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, said Jesus, when he was set upon by bandits who stripped him and beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A little while later a priest comes along, sees the unfortunate man, but passes by and does nothing for him.  Not long after that a Levite comes by, a man dedicated to serving God.  He also sees the assaulted traveler bleeding, bruised and naked at the side of the road, but he, too, passes by and does nothing to help.  Fortunately,  right after that a Samaritan happens along.  He takes pity on the man.  Gives him first aid, takes him to a nearby inn, gives the innkeeper two days wages to care for the man, and promises to pay for any additional expenses on his way back.  

After telling this story, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the bandits?”  “The one who showed mercy,” said the lawyer.  “You go and do likewise,” said Jesus.  

You know this story well.  You have a familiar name for it.  But I gave you a different name for it.  I did that because the name we usually call it, “The Good Samaritan” carries a boatload of interpretive baggage.

Some context.  

When Jesus tells this story he is on his way to Jerusalem.  He is still in the countryside.  To the people in the countryside, bandits were not necessarily bad guys.  Because of economically oppressive systems inflicted by Rome and the heavy tithe system from the religious structure represented by priests and pharisees, and limited labor opportunities, many men turned to highway robbery.  Those listening to Jesus tell this story probably assumed that the man who was assaulted and left for dead was a rich merchant—bandits wouldn’t rob poor people, no money in it—and rich merchants were not trusted.  The common people in Jesus’ time had a world view of limited good; if someone was well off it was almost certainly at someone else’s expense.  Bandits tended to even the scales.

So bandits robbing a merchant—not shocking.  But a priest and Levite walking by and doing nothing?  That’s shocking.  These are men who have an obligation to help according to Torah.  Actually, according to Torah, anyone who can should help.  Most shocking of all, though, is that the person who does stop to help is a Samaritan.

I wonder if we can really understand how much Judeans hated Samaritans.  I suppose I could give some examples, but I would surely offend someone.  And that’s the point.  The people listening to Jesus, including the lawyer, would have been greatly offended that the Samaritan was the hero of the story.  The mutual hatred between Jews and Samaritans had deep historical roots.  When Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor?” the lawyer can’t bring himself to say the word Samaritan.  He simply says, “The one who showed mercy.”

This is an anit-racist story, pure and simple. When the lawyer asks Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” he’s really asking “who is it okay for me to hate?”  So Jesus tells him a story where the hero is a person he is going to be automatically inclined to disregard and disrespect.  In the end, it turns out that the long answer to his original question of how can one inherit eternal life turns out to be, “Love God, love your neighbor as you love yourself, and that means you can’t be a racist.”

We call this episode “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.”  Earlier I called it “The Parable of the Assaulted Traveler.”  What if I called it “The Encounter With A Racist Lawyer”?  Changing the title can change the way you read it or hear it.  It can shift the focus.  In the same way, learning more of the background information can change the way you understand the story.  We’ve always heard it as a story about helping those in need—and it certainly contains that element—but it’s really a story about racism.

How do you read it?  This is such an important question for us to ask ourselves about the scriptures, about the news we’re reading and watching, and about life.  

The Time is Ripe

Mark 1:14-20

Pepleirotai ho Kairos.  “The time is fulfilled,” says Jesus as he begins his ministry in Galilee.  The word for time here in Mark’s original Greek text is kairos, the word you would use to say the time is right.  It’s the right moment.  Kairos.  It’s the word used to say that a fruit is ripe or that someone arrived just in the nick of time.  There’s another Greek word for time: chronos.  Think chronology.  That’s the word we use to say that the time will be  six o’clock in the morning when the alarm goes off.  But the word here in Mark 1:15 is kairos.  The time is fulfilled, says Jesus to the people of the Galilee.  The time is full.  The time is ripe.

Who are these people he’s speaking to as he moves through Galilee?  The Galilee was one of the richest areas in Palestine.  It was the breadbasket of the region, rich in wheat and barley and oats, and also with olive groves, vineyards, and orchards.  Dried fish from the Sea of Galilee provided the primary source of protein for the region and helped to feed both Caesar’s and Herod’s armies.  But for all this, the majority of the people were poor.  A system of high rents paid to wealthy absentee landowners, heavy taxes paid to Herod or Rome, and heavy tithes paid to the religious system of the temple guaranteed that most of the people lived in a perpetual cycle of poverty.  These were people who had lived for generations under someone else’s heavy hand.

Pepleirotai ho Kairos.  “The time is fulfilled,” proclaims Jesus to these people and to people of every time and place who have lived or are living under systems that hold them down, push them to the margins, pick their pockets, and crush their hopes and dreams.  The time is fulfilled.  You’ve waited long enough.  Enough is enough.  The time is ripe.   

 “The kin-dom of God has come near,” he tells them.  It is arriving.  It is in reach.  It is imminent.  It is doable.  And then he says this: “Repent and believe the good news.”

Do you remember what I said about “repent” a few weeks ago?  

Repentance.  In English it’s a smudged and leaden word filled with regret and contrition. Repentance is a stinging backside, bruised knees and hunched shoulders.  I suggest we ban it and replace it with the Greek word: Metanoia.  Metanoia is climbing out of a dank hole into the sunlight.  Metanoia is being freed from the nasty habits that ruin your health and suck the life out of your wallet.  Metanoia is putting on new glasses with the right prescription and realizing that you had only been seeing a third of the details and half the colors in the world.  Metanoia  is shoes that fit right, have cushy insoles, perfect arch support, and take the cramp out of your lower back.  Metanoia is thinking new thoughts and behaving in new ways.  Metanoia is a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of life, a new direction.  

“Metanoiete!” Jesus says.  He says it in the imperative, as a command.  Put on those new glasses and those better shoes.  See the world in a better, clearer way.  Walk into the world in a new way that doesn’t cause pain for you or anyone around you.  Think about the world in a new way.  Think about yourself in a new way.  Think about your neighbor in a new way.  Think about who might be your neighbor in a new way.

“And believe the good news!”  Pisteuete! Another imperative.  Another command.  Believe!  It’s not a request to accept the idea, to consider it thoughtfully, to mull it over.  It’s a command to believe it, to trust it, to act on it, to base your life on the good news that the kin-dom of God, the reign of God is within reach.

That, according to Jesus, is the gospel.  That is the good news.  The kin-dom of God is immanent.  The kin-dom of God is arriving on earth as it is in heaven.

And notice this:  He doesn’t say a word here about receiving him into your heart and making him your personal Lord and Savior.  He doesn’t say anything here about being saved.  He doesn’t say anything here about forgiveness or atonement.  There is nothing spiritual in his language here at all.  When he says “Believe the good news!” it is a call to action.

“Believe” in Mark’s gospel is not a sit-and-think word.  “Believe” is a get-up-and-do word. 

In this gospel Jesus is on the move and calls others to move with him.  As he passes along the seashore he calls Peter and Andrew and James and John and they drop their nets to follow him.  He teaches as he moves.  

He calls us where we are and in the same imperative voice says, “Come!  Follow me and I’ll teach you how to bring others along!”  

He calls us to travel with him.  To work with him.  There is so much to be done.  There is an old world to dismantle and a new world to build.  The kin-dom of God is within reach.  The kin-dom of God is arriving.  

If we can see him with eyes refocused by metanoia, if we can hear him with ears opened by metanoia, if we can be freed from our preconceived ideas and learn to believe him with a trust and faith transformed by a metanoia of heart and mind, then we can begin to see the kin-dom take root and grow like a garden spreading across the desert.  

And this isn’t just “me” work that Jesus is calling us to do.  This isn’t just about saving your own soul, although, “the one who endures to the end will be saved,” said Jesus.[1]  But there’s a lot to do before we get there.  

This is “us” work.  Building the kin-dom of God requires all hands on deck.  It requires unity.  As President Biden said in his Inaugural address, “It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: Unity. Unity. Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.”

He was talking about healing our country of the divisions that have been tearing us apart, but the same thing applies to making the kin-dom of God a reality on earth as it is in heaven, something we pray for every time we pray the prayer Jesus taught us. 

“History, faith and reason show the way, the way of unity,” said President Biden. “We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace — only bitterness and fury. No progress — only exhausting outrage.”

At the founding of this country our founders gave us a vision to strive for: “We, the people…in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity…”  That has always sounded to me a lot like the kin-dom of God.  It’s collective.  We the people—all of us want to form a more perfect union.  That’s ongoing work.  All of us want to establish justice.  That’s ongoing work.  All of us want to ensure domestic tranquility.  Is this not merely the country, but the world we all want to live in?  A world where everyone’s well-being is secured by the solemn word and promise of everyone else?  A world in conformity with God’s own vision of equity and justice?

This is the collective work we are called to, the work of the kin-dom, the work of taking care of each other, the work of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

“So we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us,” said Amanda Gorman, our inspiring, young poet laureate.  

“We close the divide because we know to put our future first,

we must first put our differences aside. 

We lay down our arms 

so we can reach out our arms to one another, 

we seek harm to none 

and harmony for all.

we will raise this wounded world 

into a wondrous one,

We’ve braved the belly of the beast, 

we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace 

and the norms and notions of what just is, 

isn’t always justice.

We will not march back to what was 

but move to what shall be

we will not be turned around 

or interrupted by intimidation 

because we know our inaction and inertia 

will be the inheritance of the next generation, 

our blunders become their burden. 

But one thing is certain: 

if we merge mercy with might and might with right, 

then love becomes our legacy 

and change our children’s birthright.

There is always light 

if only we’re brave enough to see it, 

if only we’re brave enough to be it.”[2]

Pepleirotai ho Kairos. The time is ripe. The kin-dom of God is in reach.  It always has been.  Metanoiete.  Change direction, and believe the good news.  In Jesus’ name.


[1] Mark 13:13

[2] The Hill We Climb (edited) Amanda Gorman, from President Biden’s Inauguration

No Deceit

John 1:43-51

Jesus saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree.  I wonder if the writer of John meant that literally or figuratively.  The Jews have always said that the Torah is a tree of knowledge.  Those who studied Torah were said to be “sitting under the fig tree.”  That expression, “sitting under the fig tree” was also sometimes used if you were studying under a rabbi’s instruction and taking in the “sweet fruit of his knowledge.”  And, of course, there were actual large fig trees in Judea which spread out large canopies of shade.  Sitting in the shade of a fig tree was often where someone would go to pray or to meditate on scripture.  So I wonder which it was.  Did Jesus see Nathanael discussing Torah with a rabbi who was his teacher?  Did Jesus see him praying or meditating?   However it was, Jesus saw him. Really saw him.  And in seeing him, Jesus knew him. 

“Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” said Jesus as Nathanael came walking toward him. Nathanael was one of those people, apparently, who didn’t bother to buffer his opinions.  He didn’t mince words.  When Philip told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  Nathanael’s response was,  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  

Most of us learn somewhere along the way how to be a little less than one hundred percent candid in sharing our opinions about things, even things we think are really important, even when it’s our job to speak.  We learn pretty early on that plainly speaking the truth we see often puts us in direct opposition to what someone else sees.  “Know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” said Jesus.  That’s true.  But one of the things it may set you free from is those people who don’t like your truth.

In our monthly collegium meeting on Thursday, some of my colleagues were sharing how frustrated they are with parishioners who have taken them to task for being too political in their sermons recently, and especially past week after the storming of the Capitol building.  Knowing them as I do, I’m sure they weren’t saying anything overtly political simply for the sake of being political.  I’m certain they were doing their best to proclaim the Way of Jesus and the love of Christ in the context of the events that have been keeping all our lives in turmoil.  I’m also sure they were trying to be faithful to their ordination vows which call us to speak the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to speak for the poor, and to speak for justice.  But maybe they spoke a little too plainly.  Like Nathanael.  

I have a friend, a classmate from seminary, who left the ministry a few years ago because he refused to bend or soften the words of Jesus to avoid confronting his congregation’s extreme political stance.  He went back to his old job of writing code as a computer programmer because, in his words, “The computer doesn’t ever pretend that the code is saying something it doesn’t say.”

We want to hear the truth.  We want to know the truth.  But we want it to be in our favor. 

Unvarnished truth makes us uneasy when it doesn’t jibe with what we already think and say what we want it to say.  We want to be on the side of truth, but far too many people would bend the truth rather than bend themselves to make that happen.  Over these last several years, in fact, we have seen people living in a flat-out alternate reality, inventing their own version of truth because they don’t like the facts in front of them and can’t find a way to bend them that’s convincing to everybody else. 

Here’s the thing about speaking the truth you see.  You can be wrong.  Nathanael was wrong.  Something good did come out of Nazareth.  But Nathanael was wise enough not to cling to his original opinion when he saw that he was wrong.  He was open to having his mind changed.  He was willing to get in the discussion.  And when he came to know the truth, the good thing that came out of Nazareth, he changed his life to follow that truth and live that truth.

How often, though, do we shy away from having the discussion about how we see things because we’re afraid we might not agree on what’s right or because we want to avoid the tension?

But as Dr. King pointed out, there is such a thing as creative tension, a tension that helps us separate truth from myth and helps us see a way forward.

This weekend we observe the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Dr. King wrote of his frustration with people who sat on the sidelines of the Civil Rights struggle.  Nice people who acknowledged that his cause was right.  Nice church people who acknowledged that truth and justice and the cause of Christ were on his side.  But still they sat on the sidelines and quibbled about whether or not he was doing things the right way.

“I must confess” he wrote, “that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” 

Dr.  King was writing to people who knew he was speaking truth and calling them to be true to the faith they professed, but who didn’t want to risk standing up publicly against a culture that denied the truth of equality, a culture that had lived for a very long time with the lies and structures of racism and inequality.

I think in these times God is calling us to be true to the truth we have professed.  True to the faith we have professed.  I think God is calling us to not just be “not racist,” but to be anti-racist.  I think God is calling us not simply not to lie, but to be anti-lie, to turn our backs on false facts and false realities.  To speak truth plainly.

And when we find that the way we see the world doesn’t quite match what others see, then let’s go sit under the fig tree together and talk about it.  Let’s learn to really see each other the way Jesus saw Nathanael.  Let’s learn to discern the truth together.  In the presence of the one who is the truth, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  

Immersed in Wonder

“I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

– Mark 1:8

Not long ago I saw a picture of a Pandemic baptism.  The mother was holding up her baby while the pastor stood about eight feet away next to the font and aimed a squirt gun at the baby.  So, ten points for creativity during the pandemic!  

I wonder what the writer or writers of the Didache would have thought of that.  The Didache is a small book of instruction for the Christian faithful written around the year 100.  It was called the Didache, meaning The Twelve, because it was assumed that the teachings in it were handed down by the twelve apostles.  Here’s what the it says about baptism:  “And concerning baptism,  baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,  in living water (running water). But if you do not have living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”  It seems clear that the Didache calls us to adapt as circumstances dictate, so maybe in these circumstances where we are required to maintain physical distance to help stop the Corona virus, the writer of the Didache would be just fine with a water pistol baptism as long as it’s done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Some people want to insist that the only valid baptism is by immersion.  They point out that our verb to baptize comes from the Greek word baptidzo, which means “to immerse.”  They’re right about that–  baptidzo does mean “to immerse.”  But it’s also the word that’s used to describe sprinkling dressing on your salad.  And as the Didache makes clear, three splashes of water on the head in the name of the triune God is adequate if that’s what you’re equipped to do or if that’s what circumstances dictate.  It’s not the amount of water that matters, it’s the power of the Word of God in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

But let’s stick with the idea of immersing for a moment.  In Matthew 28:19 Jesus says, “Go make disciples of all peoples, baptizing them—immersing them—in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  If we simply reduce that to a formula for a baptismal ritual, I think we are missing the entire point of what he was calling us to do.  

Jesus is calling us to make disciples and be disciples who are immersed in the life and love, the eternal relationship, of the triune God.  Jesus is calling us to dive deep into that relationship with the Trinity and to draw others in with us.  At the same time, Jesus is calling us to enter into a deeper relationship with humanity, with all peoples.  All nations.  Panta ta ethne it says in the Greek.  All the ethnicities.

When Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan, it was both an incarnational and a trinitarian moment.  Jesus, fully human and fully divine enters into the water, immerses himself into the physical reality of this world, accompanied by the Holy Spirit and with the Father’s voice of affirmation ringing in his heart.  He immerses himself into all the joys and beauty and intricate complexity of the earth and at the same time into all the suspicion, harshness, competition and misunderstanding.  He immerses himself into water, the element that is essential to sustain us and can also kill us, the element that can enrich us with a bountiful harvest or destroy us with chaotic storms.  He immerses himself in life as we live it. 

He rises from the water to begin his ministry of proclaiming the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven, to teach us in the middle of our chaotic lives about God’s boundless grace and endless love, and to show us that there is a pathway through the chaos.  And he calls us to follow, to enter the mystery with him, and bring others along with us.

Baptism reminds us that we are enlisted in a cosmic drama and that the stakes are high.

These are the questions we ask before we profess our faith in the rite of baptism:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

They sound archaic and mythic, these questions, but they are worth serious thought.  They are a clue that in our baptism we are entering into mysteries that are deeper and older than what most of the world is used to observing or thinking about.  These questions remind us that there are forces at work behind the scenes, that evil is sinister and insidious and seductive and deceptive.

But this is where we have to be very cautious.  We find stories with these “behind the scenes” elements attractive, and if we’re not careful we can easily become paranoid and fall prey to conspiracy theories.  We can find ourselves manipulated and dragged down dangerous rabbit holes through lies, rumors, half-truths and misdirection.  We can get good and evil confused with each other.  Martin Luther noted this in the Heidelberg Disputation when he wrote, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil.  A theologian of the cross call the thing what it actually is.”

We saw how out of hand this can get this week when a mob, misled and spurred on by outrageous claims made by Q-Anon and baseless assertions of voter fraud made by the president and others, attacked the capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the certification of the Electoral College ballots.  I’m sure many, maybe most of them believed their cause was right and just, that they were standing against evil.  But they had been misled.  Manipulated.  And so they became tools in an act of desecration.

One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that St. Paul listed in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is the discernment of spirits.  Let me ask you—what spirit did you see at work in that riot?  I, for one, did not see any spirit of righteousness in a Confederate flag, a blatant symbol of racism being paraded through the rotunda. I did not discern anything holy in a face-painted, shirtless man with horns on his head defiling the sacred chambers of deliberation where our laws are made.

Baptism means we renounce calls to violence.  Baptism means we renounce white supremacy and racism.  Baptism means we renounce rumor and falsehood.  It means we speak truth and name a thing what it is. 

Baptism means our hearts break when we see sacred spaces profaned, when we see our common halls of deliberation desecrated by thoughtless frenzy and anger.  

Baptism means we work to restore what has been damaged, especially relationships. 

To be baptized also means, though, that we swim in a sea of grace.  It means that when we lose our sense of self or become too full of ourselves, we have a place to come home to, a loving Abba who reminds us of who we really are, a God who helps us find our true self hidden in Christ.

“The grace of God,” wrote Buechner, “means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

Baptism gives us identity.  It anoints us as children of God and at the same time reminds us that we are siblings in our humanity.  It reminds us that we have a responsibility to God, to the world and to each other.  Baptism reminds us that our lives are in each other’s hands. 

Baptism is not a one-time event.  It is a way of life.  Baptism is not fire insurance.  We don’t baptize babies so that if, God forbid, something awful should happen they won’t go to hell.  We baptize them so that they can be immersed from the very beginning in a life where they are always seeing and experiencing the presence of God, ideally within the family of faith—with the community of all those sisters and brothers who have also been given what St. Paul calls “a spirit of adoption.”  We baptize adults because it is never too late to begin that new life as God’s child, never too late to become a new creation, never too late to receive that “spirit of adoption,” never too late to be embraced by and enfolded into the family of faith.

In baptism we live in a covenant with God and with the family of faith.  The water and the Word seal our vow to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Baptism means I try to live peaceably with all, so far as it depends on me.  It means that I try to bring to the world love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 

Because we are baptized, we try to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that’s not always easy because sometimes our neighbors are prickly and abrasive and unlovable.  Still, we try to love them.  We try to understand why they’re prickly and abrasive and unlovable.  We pray for them and ask God to heal whatever pain makes them put on such harsh armor against the world or we ask God to break through whatever illusion they’re living under. 

“If we are to love our neighbors,” wrote Frederick Buechner, “before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.” 

To be baptized is to see the world with new eyes.  To be baptized is to see that it is a world of wonder moving through a cosmos full of wonder.  To be baptized is to marvel at the astonishing work of God conducting the dance of stars, planets and gravitational waves, to see God as the inscrutable force of intent in quantum mechanics.  To be baptized is to see life in all its fullness, the good and the bad, to immerse yourself in it as Christ did, and to love it.

Baptism means you understand that life is a gift, and you have reached out to accept it.  In Jesus’ name.

Our Down-to-Earth God

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. –Luke 2:9 (NRSV)

It’s funny how you can look at something a hundred times or more and then one day someone will point out something you hadn’t noticed and the whole thing looks different to you.  That happened to me last week when a colleague pointed out one simple word in Luke’s Christmas story that had always just flown right by me.

Stood.

The angel stood before them.  On the ground.

In all the years of reading or hearing this Christmas story I had always imagined this angel and the subsequent multitude of the heavenly host hovering in the air.  I think the Christmas Carols taught us to picture it that way.  Angels we have heard on high.  It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth.  

But that’s not what it says in the Gospel of Luke.  The angel stood before them.

If you were a shepherd in a field on a dark night, it would be pretty unsettling to have an angel appear in the air above you making announcements, but at least if the angel is in the air there’s some distance between you—a separation between your environment and the angel’s.  But if the angel suddenly appears in front of you standing on the same ground you’re standing on, shining with the glory of the Lord… well I think my knees would turn to rubber.  And then imagine what it feels like when the whole multitude of the heavenly host is suddenly surrounding you and singing Glory to God.

Angels in the air feel slightly safer than angels on the ground.  If the angels are above, that means that they came from above.  It means that heaven is “up there” somewhere.  But if the angels appear standing in front of us or behind us or around us, what does that say about heaven?  Could it be that heaven, the dwelling place of the angels, is not just “up there” but also here, with us?  Around us?  Could it mean that the angels of God are standing near us all the time and they simply choose not to show themselves?  Or that we’re just blind to their presence? Could it mean that this ground we walk on and build on and live on is also part of the dwelling place of God—so holy ground?

The angels didn’t bend near the earth.  They stood on it.  

We have this tendency, we humans, to want to separate the material from the spiritual, the divine from the physical.  We are such binary, black and white thinkers in a universe that’s full of colors.  We want to put borders on oceans.  And we certainly seem to want a border between heaven and earth.

We seem to be most comfortable when there’s a little distance between us and angels, a little distance between us and God.  That seems to be the way most people talk about it, anyway.  “Put in a good word with the man upstairs,” they say.  And then there’s that song: “God is watching from a distance.”

But that’s not what Christianity says.  That’s not what Christmas says.  The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  Not from a distance, but right in front of us.  As one of us.

We have trouble seeing the presence of God, seeing Christ in creation.  We have trouble seeing Christ in each other.  We even have trouble understanding Christ in Jesus.  How can Jesus be both divine and human?  We struggle to wrap our minds around that idea, so we have a tendency to make him either all human or all divine.  We picture that baby in the manger with a halo, and it doesn’t cross our minds that he might need to breastfeed and need his diapers changed.

“We need to see the mystery of incarnation in one ordinary concrete moment,” wrote Richard Rohr, “and struggle with, fight, resist, and fall in love with it there. What is true in one particular place finally universalizes and ends up being true everywhere.”  In other words, Christ is present everywhere, in, with, and under everything.  Including you.  And me.  And all those people we’re inclined not to like.

That, in the end, is what Christmas, the incarnation, is all about.  Christmas is God’s way of teaching us that there never really was any distance between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human, between the spiritual and the material.  Christmas is God proving once again that Christ is in, with, and under all the things we think we oversee and all the things we overlook.  Christmas is angels standing on the earth to sing to shepherds and surrounding them with the glory of the Lord to remind them that they, too, are spiritual beings immersed in a human experience, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said.  

Christmas is God’s love made visible.  Pope Francis said, “What is God’s love? It is not something vague, some generic feeling. God’s love has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Jesus.”  I would add that, if you open your heart and your mind to it, God’s love can have your face, too.

Christmas is earthy and concrete.  It needs to be fed at a mother’s breast.  It needs its diapers changed.  It cries when it’s hungry and shivers when it’s cold.  It looks out at the world with new eyes and tries to see and understand.  Christmas wants to be loved and to give love.  

Christmas is our down-to-earth God made manifest.  Yes, gloria in excelsis deo, glory to God in the highest, but glory, too, to God on earth where the angels stand to sing to shepherds, because the Spirit of God is in them, too, and God loves them like crazy.  Just like God loves you.

My prayer for you this night is that you would enter deeply into the concrete, down-to-earth, human and divine mystery of incarnation.  May your eyes and ears be opened to the angels who stand upon the earth and minister to all God’s children.  May you come to see Christ incarnate in all creation so that you are always standing on holy ground.  May you dispense with artificial borders in your heart, in your mind, and in this lovely world.  And may you come to see yourself and all the others who share this world with you as spiritual beings immersed in a human experience.  May Christ be born anew in your heart.  In Jesus’ name.

When the Men Are Silent

Luke 1:26-56

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. ­–Luke 1:28029

When I was seven years old my parents sat me down and said, “We are moving to California.”  I was much perplexed by their words.  I mean, I understood all their words… individually… as words.  I even understood their words as they had put them together in that sentence: we are moving to California.  It conveyed coherent meaning to me.  But that was the problem.  There was too much meaning in those five words strung together like that.   They were heavy with meaning.  They meant that I would be saying goodbye to life as I knew it in Kansas City, Missouri, saying goodbye to my best friend Dennis who lived right next door and all my other friends and cousins and Daniel Boone Elementary School and the woods where we played and fireflies in the backyard in the summer and sledding down the little hill in front of our house in the snow in the winter and a million other things that were crowding into my seven year old mind all at once.  Mom and Dad tried to make it sound like it was good news.  Beaches!  Disneyland!  New Friends!  (Are there any scarier words in the world for a kid than “New Friends?”)  But while I was still feeling the shock of their words, still being perplexed and wondering in my seven-year-old mind if maybe I had somehow caused this terrible thing to happen, I realized that things were already in motion and there wasn’t a thing I could do to stop it.  

“Greetings, highly favored one, the Lord is with you.”  When I read that Mary was perplexed by the Angel Gabriel’s words I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t feeling something like what I felt that day when my parents told me that my life was about to change completely and utterly.  Perplexed is a pretty tame translation for the word that’s in Luke’s Greek text.  Perplexed sounds like she was a bit puzzled, perhaps a little confused.  Diatarasso, the verb in the original text means she was distressed, disturbed, deeply troubled by the angel’s words.  

Mary apparently knew that the ones who are highly favored by the Lord, those whom the Lord was with, were not folk who tended to have quiet, easy, uneventful lives.  The Lord tends to use his favorites to get things done.  The Lord tends to move them around like chess pieces.  If an angel shows up to tell you that you are favored by God and that God is with you, hold on to your wallet.  It means that God has plans for you.  Mary may have only been a teenager, but she was smart and she knew the stories about those whom the Lord favored.  So she pondered what sort of greeting this might be and waited for the angel to say more.  What was God up to?  What was God planning to do with her?

After a long moment of Mary saying nothing, Gabriel cleared his throat.  He had a message to deliver.  God had given him a script and told him not to deviate from it.  So he launched back into his speech.  It’s a nice speech, a very formal speech, the kind of speech you’d expect from an archangel. 

He told her she would conceive—in her womb, just in case she was uninformed about where conception happened.  He told her that the child would be a boy and that she was to name him Jesus.  He would be great.  He would be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord would give him the throne of David.  His kingdom will have no end.

Up to this point Mary had been silent, but now she interrupts.  “How can this be,” she asks,  “since I am a virgin?”  She’s got some moxie, this young woman.  She’s not afraid to stop an archangel in the middle of his spiel and say, “Excuse me, but you’re forgetting one very important technicality.  I don’t know how it’s done with angels, but for humans there’s a part of the process missing in your plan here.”

“Ah, yes,” says the angel.  “I’m coming to that.”  And he resumes his recitation.  He told her that the Holy Spirit would initiate the pregnancy, that the power of the Most High would overshadow her, so the child would be holy.  He told her that her relative, Elizabeth, who was getting along in years and had never had children was now pregnant because nothing is impossible with God.  And with that Gabriel reached the end of his script and stood there waiting for a response.

Finally Mary has a chance to speak again. 

Our translations soften the impact of her words, I think.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That’s how it reads in the NRSV and our other versions are in the same dynamic range.  They sound so docile compared to the force of the words in the original language.  Even the Latin toned it down from Luke’s original Greek where there are hints of both fierceness and resignation in her words that don’t come through in the niceties of our translations.

The first thing she says is rather startling, especially if you remind yourself that she is saying it to one of the seven archangels that stand at the throne of God.  The first thing she says, literally translated, is, “Look.”  She invites the angel to really see her.  “Look,” she says, “the slave girl of the Lord.  Let it happen to me according to your word.”

“Look at me, angel, before you vanish back to heaven.  Really pay attention for a moment to the one who is highly favored, the Lord’s slave girl. Let it happen as you have said.  But before you go, see me.  And think about how your visit will change my life.  See me, and think about what it will cost me because the Lord is with me.  Think about what it means to be the slave girl of God, even if the slave agrees to play a part.”

Then the angel departed from her, and Mary went to see her relative, Elizabeth, and her miraculous pregnancy.

Now here’s an interesting thing.  Have you ever noticed that in the original Advent, that time building up to the birth of both John the Baptizer and Jesus, the men in the story are silent?  Well, Gabriel talks a lot, but he’s an angel and everything he says is a message from God.  Otherwise the male voices are almost entirely silent.  

Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband doubts Gabriel when Gabriel tells him he’s going to be a father so late in life, so Gabriel makes him mute for the entire time of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  Joseph is visited by an angel a few times in Matthew’s gospel, but Joseph never speaks.

The women, though,  the women speak powerfully and prophetically.  Elizabeth silences the gossipy busybodies of her community saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” 

When Mary comes to see her, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary with words so powerful that they have become engraved in the psyche of our faith for all generations. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”    And then she affirms Mary for agreeing to her role in God’s plan: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”   Elizabeth speaks in the tradition of the five women prophets of the Hebrew Bible, Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and the unnamed prophetess mentioned in Isaiah 8.  She speaks in the strength of Judith, the conviction of Tamar, and joyful mirth of Sarah. 

Moved by her words and stirred by the Spirit, Mary begins to sing a prophetic song full of joy and power to proclaim the work of God.  Young, poor, unmarried and pregnant, she becomes a prophet.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  She rejoices that God isn’t transforming the world through the rich and the powerful, but instead is working through the poor, the humble, the disenfranchised and marginalized—through her and people like her.  

She sings of things to come as if they are already accomplished, a proleptic vison of God remaking the world from the bottom up.  “Prophets,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it — not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone, maybe even God.”

 “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung,” said Dietrich Bonnhoeffer.   She sings of a sweeping change in the social order, a change so radical that her Magnificat has been regarded as politically dangerous in places where despots and tyrants have tried to maintain control.  It was banned in India during British rule.  When Guatemala was ruled by a military junta in the 1980s they outlawed her Magnificat, and it was outlawed again during the “dirty war” in Argentina when the mothers of disappeared children began papering the streets with posters of her song.  When you’re trying to rule people with an iron fist you can’t have them singing about power being overturned.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

In a time when her own land and her own her own people are burdened by the yoke of Rome, she sings of God’s faithfulness:  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

Mary sings an overture for the work of her son, The Son of the Most High.  She sings to proclaim God’s vision of justice.  She sings to remind us that we are called to share the vision and to share the work of making God’s reign a reality on earth as it is in heaven.

Look.  See the slave girl of the Lord.  An angel speaks to her and she is much perplexed.  But she is not silenced.  She sings the song of Advent, the song of God’s revolution.

When the men are silent, the women sing.  And their songs change the world.