Welcome the Child (a lesson in arrogance)

Mark 9:30-37

There’s a wonderful short story by Leo Tolstoy called The Three Hermits.  He tells about a bishop who was sailing from Archangel to Solovotsk with a group of pilgrims when he overheard a fisherman telling them about three hermits who lived in an earthen hut on an island that was at that moment just barely visible at the horizon.  According to the fisherman, these three hermits were very holy men who spent their days praying for the salvation of their souls and for the needs of the world.  The fisherman had met them the previous year when his boat was damaged and he put in to their island to repair it.

‘One is a small man and his back is bent,” said the fisherman. “He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say. He is so old that the white of his beard is taking a greenish tinge, but he is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered peasant coat. His beard is broad, and of a yellowish grey color. He is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. He is stern, with over-hanging eyebrows; and he wears nothing but a mat tied round his waist.”

The bishop was intrigued, and, because this small unnamed island fell within the territory of his authority, he convinced the ship’s captain to bring him to the island.  The captain brought the ship as close to the rocky shore of the island as he dared, and the bishop was able land on the island in the ship’s boat.  As he stepped ashore, the three hermits came to greet him.  The old men bowed to him and he made the sign of the cross and blessed them, at which they bowed even lower.

“I have heard,’ said the bishop, “that you, godly men, live here saving your own souls, and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.”

The old men looked at each other smiling, but remained silent.

“Tell me,’ said the Bishop, ‘what you are doing to save your souls, and how you serve God on this island.”

The second hermit sighed, and looked at the oldest, the very ancient one. The latter smiled, and said:  “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.”

“But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray in this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.”  And when the old man said this, all three raised their eyes to heaven, and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us!”

The Bishop smiled as he told them they were praying incorrectly.  With that he launched into a brief lecture on theology and how God had been revealed in the world and in the scriptures.  And then, because it was the prayer Jesus had taught his disciples and because it is written in the scriptures, he began to teach them the Lord’s Prayer.  

The three hermits, who had spent years mostly in silence, struggled as they tried to learn the prayer the bishop was teaching them, but eventually, after several hours and much repetition, they seemed to have learned it.

It was getting dark and the moon was rising over the sea as the bishop returned to the boat.  As he bid them farewell, the old hermits bowed down to the ground.  The bishop raised them up and kissed them, then reminded them to keep praying in the way he had taught them.  As the ship made for the open water, the bishop could still see the three old men standing by the shore, their voices floating across the water as they practiced saying the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them.  The bishop sat in the stern, contented, as the ship sailed on and the island disappeared below the horizon.

It was a pleasant night, so the bishop continued to sit in the stern, thinking and gazing out across the sea as the moonlight sparkled and danced across the waves.  Suddenly he saw something white and shining on the pathway the moon was casting upon the sea.  Was it a gull, or perhaps the sail of another ship?  The bishop realized that it was moving toward them very rapidly.

The bishop called to the helmsman, “What is that, my friend?  What is it?”  the 

Bishop repeated, though he could now see plainly what it was—the three hermits were running upon the water, all gleaming white, their grey beards shining.  They were approaching the ship as quickly as though it were not moving.  

The steersman looked and let go the helm in terror. “Oh Lord! The hermits are running after us on the water as though it were dry land!” 

The passengers hearing him, jumped up, and crowded to the stern. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet. 

Before the ship could be stopped, the hermits had reached it, and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say: “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

“Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”

The Bishop bowed low before the old men, and they turned and went back across the sea. And a light shone until daybreak on the spot where they were lost to sight.[1]

Sometimes a lack of humility—or worse, our own arrogant assumptions—can keep us from seeing and hearing what’s right in front of us.  We can be blinded by our own agendas or preconceptions or sense of self-importance so that we fail to see that the people around us are children of God, created in the divine image and likeness of God.  We forget our common humanity.  It’s just part of human nature. 

One day, after a long day on the road, Jesus asked his disciples what they had been arguing about as they made their way back to Capernaum.  They didn’t answer his question because they were ashamed that they had been arguing about who was the greatest.  

After all this time travelling with Jesus as he taught about the equity and equality that were the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, after listening to him talk about his own pending crucifixion and humiliation, it seems that they still had it in their heads that the kingdom Jesus was ushering in would be something like a conventional kingdom.  They were imagining themselves in some future positions of influence and power.  But Jesus had been trying to teach them that God’s kingdom wasn’t like that at all.  

Clifton Black, Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton, points out that here in chapter nine of Mark we see a pattern repeated from chapter eight.  The pattern goes like this: a) Jesus predicts his suffering, execution and resurrection;  b) the disciples either fail to grasp or refuse to accept what he’s teaching them;  then c) Jesus leads them through a teaching moment and expands the definition of discipleship.

“Why this repetition?” asks Dr. Black. “Two reasons. First: Discipleship in Mark is hard to accept. Second: In this gospel Jesus’ closest followers are so dense that light bends around them.”[2] 

It’s easy for us to feel a little smug about the disciples being so slow on the uptake, but then we would  be committing the same sin of arrogance that they were as they jockeyed for status.  We need to remember that we know how the story turns out, but they were living in the middle of it.

When Peter opposed Jesus’ destiny in chapter eight, Jesus responded by roundly chastising him. Here in chapter nine, though, Jesus very quietly teaches them about humility without humiliating them.  

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’  Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  

He doesn’t criticize them for wanting to be first, to have the highest ranking.  Instead, he tells them what it takes to accomplish that.  If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.

To prove his point, Jesus takes a little child in his arms.  It’s easy for us to miss the point of what he’s doing here, and there’s a temptation to over-sentimentalize it.  But he’s giving them a very clear object lesson—at least it was clear to them in their culture.  

The word we translate as “little child,” paidion, was also another way to say “slave.”  Think in terms of, “tell the boy to get me a drink,” or “tell the girl to clear the table.”  The “boy” or the “girl” might be full-grown adults, but they’re not seen that way.  The double meaning worked because in the ancient world of the disciples, a child, like a slave, had the least status of anyone.  As Professor Black explains, “A child epitomizes the most subservient human in ancient society, one with slightest status. But in Jesus’ presence a little child literally has ‘standing’.” 

  “Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,”  said Jesus.  The disciples had almost certainly overlooked that child before Jesus picked her up and took her in his lap.  They probably couldn’t imagine that they might learn something from that child, any more than the bishop in Tolstoy’s story could imagine that he might learn something from three old hermits on a remote island.  In their pride, the disciples probably just saw a kid, maybe even one who was kind of in the way, a distraction from their lesson in spirituality.  Who would have thought that the child would be their lesson in spirituality?  

If you want to be first you have to be last.  If you want to be the greatest, you have to be the least.  You have to be everyone’s servant.  If you want to embrace Christ, you need to embrace everyone, even people with no status whatsoever.  Even a child.  You might be surprised.  You might discover that they can run across the water and shine like the moon.


[1] The Three Hermits, Leo Tolstoy; The Literacy Network, http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2896/

[2] Commentary on Mark 9:30-37, C. Clifton Black; WorkingPreacher.org, 9/19/21

A Clash of Symbols

Mark 8:27-38

When you’re listening to a symphony or some other orchestral music and you hear the cymbals, it’s a clue that a musical statement is being made.  Often the sound will start with a quiet roll of the mallets on a single cymbal, rising under the sound of the other instruments until it crescendos into an impressive clash of bright noise to punctuate the piece.  That clash of the cymbals is a musical way to say “pay attention.”  

A clash of symbols—S-Y-M-B-O-L-S—also gets our attention.  This weekend we observed a horrible anniversary.  It was twenty years ago when terrorists violently assaulted our religious, social, economic, and political structures by crashing three planes into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.  Analysts think that the fourth plane, which was heroically brought down by its passengers, was intended to crash into the US Capitol building or the White House.  The terrorists wanted to make a statement.  They wanted our attention.  So they chose to destroy targets that were symbolic, targets that represented our economic, military, and political might.  Their actions were not intended to be militarily strategic.  Their actions were violently symbolic.

The Gospel of Mark is thick with symbols and symbolic actions as Jesus nonviolently confronts the religious, social, economic, and political structures of his time in order to proclaim that the Reign of God is arriving.  Everything that happens in Mark’s gospel pivots around that opening announcement:  The Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, the Dominion of God is arriving.  

The announcement, itself, the very language of it, carries symbolic weight.  Jesus doesn’t announce that the Kingdom of God has arrived, but that it is within reach.  The message is that even though Jesus, the Christ has arrived to inaugurate the Dominion of God, it’s not a done deal.  And maybe it never will be.  The language Jesus uses tells us that the Kingdom may always be a work in progress.  The Reign of God is arriving.  Engikken is the word in the Greek text.  It means imminent.  Think of it as a train that’s just coming into the station, or a plane that is on approach but hasn’t landed yet.  The orchestra is swelling with the theme, but there is a lot of the piece still to come before the final clash of the cymbals.  The conductor has not yet put down his baton.  

There are a number of cymbal clashes and symbol clashes in Mark’s orchestration of the story of Jesus.  Nothing is superfluous in this first of all the gospels.  Mark even uses the literary structure of the story in a symbolic way to reinforce the impact of what Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom, and to reassert his invitation to us to be disciples—followers and participants in The Way.  Mark carefully orders the stories and episodes he describes not just for dramatic effect, but to clarify the challenges of discipleship.

Here in chapter 8 of Mark, smack in the middle of the gospel, the disciples come to a turning point—and Mark wants it to be our turning point, too.  

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  It’s an easy question.  What’s the buzz?  What’s the word out there in the crowd?  What do the polls say?

They told him that some thought of him as John the Baptist, who had recently been executed by Herod.  Others thought of him as Elijah.  Certainly they all agreed that he ranked among the prophets.  

It’s easy for the disciples to report on what all those other people are saying.  The crowd is not the inner circle.  They’re not as fully vested in Jesus and The Way as the disciples, who are in the inner circle.

But then Jesus puts the disciples on the spot.  He asks them point blank, “But who do you say that I am?” 

Mark frames this critical question with all kinds of important symbolism.   Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is posing the question to us, too.  He places it right in the middle of the gospel so we will understand that Jesus is asking us this question right in the middle of our own story, our own journey of discipleship, our own day-to-day life: “Who do you say that I am?”  

The geographic location where Jesus asks this question is powerfully symbolic, too. They are in Gentile territory just outside Caesarea Phillipi, a city famous as a center of pagan worship, most notably worship of the god Pan—a very sexy and earthy deity.  The city was reconstructed by and named for the Tetrarch Phillip, the sycophant son of the ruthless Herod the Great.  In an effort to curry favor with his Roman overlords, Phillip also named the city for Caesar, the Roman Emperor, a dictator who claimed to be divine.  On top of all that, Caesarea Phillipi was the place where the Roman legions took their R&R and staged their campaigns into Palestine to put down Jewish rebellion. 

Here, in a place that confronted the disciples with false gods and stared them down with the brute force of its political and military power, here is where Jesus asks them—and us—his pointed question:  “Who do you say that I am?”  In the face of the allure of religion and all the false gods that beckon to us, in the face of seductive political power, in the face of the addictive efficiency of brute force he asks “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter said, “You are the messiah.  The Christ.”  Is that your answer, too?  What does that title mean to you?  Messiah.  Christ.  How do you interpret that title, that role? 

Jesus, it seems, did not like the way Peter and the others interpreted that title.  Messiah.  He told them not to say it.  Not to talk about him in those terms.  He didn’t deny that he was the Messiah, but he was concerned that they were thinking of Messiah in terms of political power and military force.  So he told them to keep quiet.  

And then, without using the term, he began to teach them what it really meant to be the Messiah.  He called himself the Son of Man, the Human One, and told them that he would undergo great suffering, that he would be rejected by the religious establishment that had, ironically, been expecting him for centuries.  He told them that he would be killed and that then he would rise again.

Peter didn’t like what Jesus was saying.  Peter was expecting a righteous general to command a holy army and Jesus was telling him he wasn’t willing to play that role.  So Peter argued with Jesus right there in front of everybody.  How often do we argue with Jesus because he won’t play the role we want him to play?  How often are we looking for a Messiah who will kick tail and take names and step in and fix everything?  

Jesus made it crystal clear that those kinds of expectations, that kind of thinking, is in direct opposition to who he is and what he’s about.  “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re thinking about things in a typically human way instead of trying to understand what God is doing and how God is doing it.”

And then Jesus said what was maybe the hardest thing of all—for the disciples and for us.  “If you want to be my follower, you’re going to have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and fall in behind me.”  

When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” it wasn’t just rhetoric.  He wasn’t speaking symbolically.  Those who heard him understood him quite clearly and so did the first readers of Mark’s gospel.  

Mark’s gospel was most likely written in Palestine during the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome from 63-70 CE, and those original readers were all too familiar with the cross.  Crucifixion, with all its horror, was a common sight for them.  Crucifixion was the Romans’ favorite way to execute those accused of rebellion or sedition.  The cross was an instrument of torture, but it was also a tool for ridicule.  Crucifixion was not only excruciatingly painful, it was also a publicly humiliating way to die—hung up naked and in agony before the world and helpless to do anything to cover yourself or ease your pain.  The Romans used it symbolically to make a statement about the futility of opposing them.

In Mark’s gospel, publicly displaying your faith, publicly acting as a follower of Jesus, means standing in opposition to both the religious and political systems that enrich and empower some while simultaneously creating a permanent class of the oppressed and disadvantaged.  The first readers of Mark understood that Jesus was asking for a total commitment to his nonviolent revolution, his transformation and restructuring of the world to bring it into conformity with God’s vision.  

Jesus is still asking that of us.  But he wants us to understand that there are consequences for taking on the powers.  He also, however, wants us to understand that there are consequences for not doing it, for continuing to play along with all the forces of business as usual. 

“What good will it be if you play the game and get everything you want, the whole world even, but lose your soul?  Your self?  What are you going to get in exchange for selling off your soul in little pieces?  What’s the going rate for that internal essence that makes you uniquely and creatively you?  What’s the market price for the image of God in you? What good will it be at the end of the day if you’re surrounded by every comfort but you’ve lost everything that makes you really you, everything in you that shines with the likeness of God? 

Those words should hit us like a clash of cymbals in the symphony of life.  They should wake us up to look at where we are in the melody of the Spirit and the orchestration of the God’s kingdom.  Those words should open our eyes and hearts and minds to the clash of symbols in our world and in our lives.  

On this day, twenty years after violent men assaulted our country by crashing into important symbols of American power, Mark’s gospel is asking us once again to pay attention to the clash of symbols in our own lives and the bright noise of the cymbals in the music of heaven.  On this day we are all standing a Caesarea Phillipi, caught between two questions:  Who do you say that Jesus is, and will you take up a cross to follow him?   The symphony pauses, waiting for us to answer.

Shock Treatment

Mark 7:24-30

Wendy Kelly is the owner of a thriving Human Resources consulting firm, Kelly’s HR Services in West Palm Beach, Florida.  She has helped hundreds of people find meaningful employment, a job she does with special sensitivity because she vividly remembers her own experience the first time she applied for a “real” job.   

She was responding to an ad for a receptionist in a medical practice.  She arrived early and sat in the waiting room with the other applicants, mostly young Black women, who were waiting to be interviewed.  Wendy remembers listening as the hiring manager, one of the doctors in the practice, called the candidates in one-by-one for their interviews:  Keisha,  La Quitta, Otishia, Tishia.  Wendy watched as one after another the women went in for what was, at most, a five minute interview with the doctor.

Finally the doctor called her name. “Wendy Kelly.”  Then he added,  “Finally a person whose name I can pronounce.”  Then as Wendy approached, he looked at her in surprise and said, “I thought you were white.”  He didn’t take her resume and simply laid her application on the stack with all the others on his desk.   He asked her a few perfunctory questions, but it really wasn’t much of an interview.  She could tell that he wanted to cut it short and move on.  Wendy left with mixed emotions.  She still wanted the job.  But would she be able to work for someone who, she had realized, was a racist?

Fast forward a number of years.  Wendy was working as a Senior Manager in a well-known management company.  She had been asking for a raise for about a year but her raise kept being postponed even though she was handling some of the company’s most important clients.  One day a new woman was hired to work on Wendy’s team.  Even though this new worker would report directly to her, Wendy had not had any say in her hiring.  

When the new woman had been there about a week, one of Wendy’s co-workers on another team asked her, “Did you see what they’re paying Sonia?”  Wendy was shocked to discover that Sonia, this new person who reported to her, was being paid $11,000 more than she was.  Naturally, she was furious.  She headed straight for her manager to tell him what she had learned and to demand that something be done.   “Wendy, I am sorry,” he said.  “I have been trying to get you a raise, but it is being shot down. This is wrong.”  When Wendy asked him, “Is this because I’m black?” he had no response.[1]

Racism takes many forms, and it’s not always as blatant as Klansmen marching in the streets or redlining of neighborhoods.  Racism has insinuated itself into our culture in ways we don’t even see.  But we need to see it.  If we’re going to change it, we need to face it.  “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” said James Baldwin, “but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”   

Racism isn’t going to disappear until we have named it in all its names and unraveled it from all the ways it has woven itself into the fabric of our lives.  Racism isn’t going to stop being a blight on our  present and a shadow over our future until we acknowledge and confront its shameful past.  Racism isn’t going to disappear until we learn to silence all the voices it speaks with, especially the racist voices and ideas that live inside us, that keep popping into our heads even against our will because we grew up in a racist world and a racist culture.  “Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year,” said John Lewis.  “Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

Racism, bigotry, prejudice—whatever you want to call it—is an insidious and foul fact of life.  We’re far too familiar with it here in America, but it raises its ugly head in one form or another in every human society.  

Every group of humans seems to have a culturally built-in opinion that some other group of humans is somehow inferior or dangerous or maybe even not really human.  

Bigotry has played an enormous role in history.  It has negatively impacted politics, economics, and even religion. “At the heart of racism,” wrote Friedrich Otto Hertz, “is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some people into being.”

Even Jesus seems to have been tainted with a hint of bigotry.  At least at first glance.  When a Syrophoenician woman in Tyre came to him begging for help, asking him to free her daughter from an unclean spirit that was tormenting her,  Jesus replied, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  

His response was perfectly in keeping with the attitudes of his culture.  That’s how Jews thought about Gentiles.  The Babylonian Talmud states, “As the sacred food was intended for men, but not for the dogs, the Torah was intended to be given to the Chosen People, but not to the Gentiles.”[2]

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  It’s shocking to hear that kind of bigotry coming from Jesus.  And I would like to suggest that that is exactly why he said it. 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his ministry by announcing that the Reign of God is arriving.  He then embodies that ministry by healing people, freeing them from demonic or other spiritual oppression, and gathering a diverse community of followers to teach them what Mark calls The Way.  He includes outcasts, like tax collectors and “sinners” in that community.  And then, to make it clear that this Beloved Community, this Companionship of the Way, is for all people, he starts repeatedly taking his disciples across the Sea of Galilee to the other side, to where the Gentiles are so he can proclaim the reign of God to them, too, and bring God’s healing to them, too, and invite them as well to join in the Companionship of the Way.  

Shortly before this episode in Tyre, deep in the heart of Phoenician Gentile territory—shortly before he said that shocking, bigoted thing to this woman, he had fed a multitude including Gentiles.  In Gentile territory.  He gave bread to the Gentiles—the bread of his teaching, the bread of healing, and real bread to feed their physical hunger.  To use the ugly language of their cultural bigotry, he had already thrown bread to the dogs.

He had made it clear in every way he could that Gentiles are included in the Beloved Community, the Companionship of the Way. He had made it clear that the Reign of God embraces everyone.  Period.

When Jesus says this ugly thing, when he for all intents and purposes calls this woman and her daughter dogs—and okay, the word in the Greek means “little dogs,” puppies—but is that really any better?—when he calls them dogs, he’s really just voicing what his disciples are thinking.  Because that’s what their culture has taught them to think about Gentiles—these other people from this other culture, these non-Jews.  

I think he wants them to hear how ugly, how ungodly that kind of thinking is, how dehumanizing those words are.   I think he knows that they will be taken aback to hear him say such a thing because it’s exactly the kind of thing he would not usually say.

Sometimes we have to hear our own less than loving thoughts and ideas come out of someone else’s mouth before we can really hear how offensive, destructive or poisonous they might be.  Sometimes we have to be shocked by hearing our own bigotry coming from someone else.  And it’s especially powerful and shocking if it’s not consistent with what that other person would usually say.  

Jesus said an ugly, bigoted thing that day in Tyre.  I don’t think he wants us to excuse it or minimize it or explain it away.  I think he wants us to hear it in all its ugliness.  I think he wants to shock us into listening more closely to hateful, offensive and divisive words and ideas that have been culturally implanted in our own thoughts…that even, sometimes, come out of our own mouths.  I think he wants to shock us into doing the long, hard work of completely and utterly rooting out racism starting with our own hearts and minds.  Even if it takes lifetimes.  


[1] Is This Because I’m Black?,  Wendy Kelley, TLNT Online Journal, August 5, 2020

[2] Mark; The Augsburg Commentary, Donald Juel; p. 108

Image by UK artist Michael Cook

Watch Your Language

Thoughts Along the Way…

A few weeks ago while I was working on a sermon, I remembered that I had written a paper on the subject years ago when I was in seminary.  I kind of half-remembered some of the points I had made in the paper and what some of the authors I had read for the paper had to say, but I thought it would be good to call it up from my old backup hard drive to re-read it.  

I went spelunking through my old backup hard drives until I found the paper in question.  I double clicked on it and…nothing.  Well, not exactly nothing.  A notice popped up on my screen.  “Unable to open.  Please choose another application.”  This confused me.  What application was I supposed to try?  I was using MS Word.  The document I was trying to open was created in Word.  I’ve always used Word.  I wrote that paper on an Apple Macintosh.  I’ve always used Macs.  So why wouldn’t it open?

I tried other files, other documents from the same era.  Same problem.  Was there something wrong with my Mac?  Had the file become corrupted?

It turns out that the problem is that the version of Word that I used so long ago is so vastly different from the versions we use today that the paper might as well have been written in a different application altogether.  In point of fact, it was written in a different application altogether.  That’s how much the software has changed.  And the hardware has changed in some pretty big ways, too.  

After googling through several articles, I discovered that there is a way to retrieve those old files, but it’s rather complicated.  Essentially I need to find a way to translate the old “language” those files were written in into today’s language for today’s machine.  And I had to ask myself it those old files are really worth all the time and trouble.  They might be.  Or they might not be anything like as good as I remember.  In the end I decided to save that project for when I retire.  If then.

“Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future,” sang the Steve Miller Band.  That song came out in 1976. Forty-five years ago.  And I still think of it as a fairly recent song because in my mind it’s still fresh.  Just like that paper I wrote thirty years ago on a machine I no longer have using a software that for all intents and purposes no longer exists.  Time keeps on slipping into the future.  The world around us keeps changing.  Ideas change.  Tastes change.  Our understanding of things changes.  The software has been updated.  The hardware is different, faster, and more complex.  

We read in Hebrews that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  Jesus is the same.  The Good News of Christ as Emmanuel, God With Us, is the same.  But sometimes the old language we use to tell the ever-new-and-renewing story simply doesn’t connect to the language the world around us is speaking.  

The story is still good.  The greatest story ever told.  We just need to translate it into the language the world can process now.

When Tradition Becomes an Obstacle

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

During my first year in seminary, we took a trip to Naperville, Illinois during spring break so that we could attend the baptism of my nephew and serve as his godparents.  He was being baptized at a large Lutheran congregation that my sister and her husband had joined because it had some great programs for their kids and it was fairly close to their new house, and they liked the pastor.  

The baptism was scheduled to happen during Sunday morning worship, but the pastor had asked that we meet on Saturday afternoon so he could talk us through how things would go during the service.  He had us walk through the service, talked very briefly about the meaning and importance of baptism, then turned to Meri and me and informed us that, unfortunately, we wouldn’t be allowed to receive communion.  See, this was a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation—LCMS—and we are the other kind of Lutherans,  Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—ELCA.   

The LCMS has a rule that only LCMS members may receive communion in their churches.  That’s their tradition.  Some LCMS congregations or pastors are not rigorous about enforcing this rule, but some take it very seriously.  Some, in fact, will only allow members of their own congregation to receive communion, just to be sure they’re conforming to the rule.  

Their reasoning for this rule is based on chapter 11 of First Corinthians where St. Paul talks about eating the bread and taking the cup in an unworthy manner.  “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body,” he writes, “eat and drink judgment against themselves.”[1]  Based on their interpretation of this one scripture, the LCMS has decided that the only way to be certain that no one is receiving communion in “an unworthy manner” is to only commune people they have vetted by means of membership.  The end result of this is that they end up excluding a lot of people from the table of fellowship.  

The irony here is that these verses they reference come at the end of a section where Saint Paul has been chastising the Corinthians because not only have they neglected to make the sacrament of bread and wine the centerpiece of their agape feast, but some people are going hungry while others feast on what they’ve brought with them.  People who have plenty are not sharing with those who have nothing.  Some are being excluded at the feast of inclusion, and that is what Saint Paul is talking about when he says that some are failing to discern the body of Christ.  Yes, Christ is present in, with, and under the bread and wine, but in a more substantial way, the body of Christ is all those who gather to share at the table.  Saint Paul makes that crystal clear in the next chapter when he writes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”[2]  

My point in all this is not to pick on the LCMS.  They’re not the only church body with an exclusionary practice of communion, and critiquing denominations is a game where no one wins.  My point is that sometimes tradition gets in the way of inclusion and participation.  Sometimes traditions become an obstacles.

That’s the issue here in the 7th chapter of Mark when Jesus once again is confronted by the Pharisees and scribes.  They ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  The tradition in question here is that the disciples did not practice ritual hand washing before eating.

Now in Exodus 30:18, there are Levitical instructions for the priests and Levites to wash their hands and feet before going into the tabernacle for worship.  Other than that there is no mention in all of the Tanakh about washing one’s hands or feet or pots and pans.  

Somewhere along the way, the Pharisees took this instruction that was intended only for the priests and Levites and only for going into the place of worship, and made a rule out of it for everybody every day before every meal.  It became their tradition.  Based on what we know now about germs, it’s actually a good rule.  A healthy rule.  Washing your hands is a good idea.  It’s a good way to reduce bacteria.  But the Pharisees and scribes didn’t know that.  They didn’t know anything about bacteria or good practices of asepsis.  They did all this washing of hands and vessels because it was their tradition.  Period.  And they wanted everyone else to keep their tradition because it was a way to maintain boundaries.  It was a way to easily see who was clean and who was unclean, who was acceptable and who was not.

All of this handwashing business was part of the Pharisees elaborate social code of table fellowship.  Ched Myers describes it this way:

“In Mark the Pharisees represent the guardians of social  orthodoxy.  They believe the boundaries of the body politic can best be policed though control of political bodies.  Thus they seek to maintain gender, ethnic, and class divisions by stressing fidelity to their ‘traditions.’  At issue here were the rules of table fellowship that functioned socially (maintaining Jewish group identity), politically (who you ate with reflected your status in the hierarchy), and economically (control over production, distribution, and consumption of food.)”[3]

Jesus isn’t bothered by their rule or their tradition.  Jesus is addressing the way they usetheir tradition.  Their rule has an impact on the people around them.  They use it to decide who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is unworthy, who is clean and who is defiled.  They use it to decide who they will buy from and who they will sell to.  They use it to create a caste system, to determine who can associate with whom.  They use it as a pretense for criticism of others.  They use it to exclude.  That’s what Jesus is objecting to.  It gives them a platform for declaring that some people are unclean—and that saddles people with a lot of social and economic consequences.  The Pharisees’ tradition had become an obstacle for others.

Jesus wants to make it clear that “clean and unclean” are not determined by whether or not someone has washed their hands.  Touching your food with unwashed hands does not make the food ritually unclean and eating food that has been touched by unwashed hands does not make the person unclean.  

According to Jesus, the Pharisees have been coming at this whole clean/unclean business from the wrong direction with their tradition.

“Jesus called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand:  there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

For the ancients, the human heart represented the seat of rationality and will.  Jesus is saying if you want to talk about what defiles a person, what makes someone “unclean,” start there.  That’s where evil begins.  In the human heart.  

Joel Marcus wrote, “The basic problem Christians should be concerned about… is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of [the human person][4]. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it into a way of excusing injustice, and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world.”[5]

It makes me wonder…how much harm and even evil has been done in history in the name of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”?

Evil starts in the human heart.  It’s there, in the heart, that the seeds of fear and greed take root and grow and blossom into evil intentions.  They don’t always look evil.  Often it just looks like we’re trying to protect our own interests.  But doing that—just that, protecting our own interests—sets a boundary between us and them, or you and me.  It draws a line in our thinking and tilts us toward looking out for Number One instead of looking out for the needs of the neighbor, the other.  That’s why we need to keep examining our hearts—our intentions, our thinking, our will—especially our inclination to exclude.  It’s important to keep examining our traditions to make sure that we aren’t turning them into obstacles or even weapons.  

Evil starts in the human heart.  But evil is more complex than just my own negative thoughts and habits.  It goes beyond us individually to affect the world at large.  Matthew Skinner wrote, “We know enough about the human condition to say that evil is about more than an individual’s selfishness or bad decisions. It roams our collective existence, our social, economic, and familial systems. We are at once perpetrators and victims. And our victimization furthers our capacity to perpetrate. ‘The human heart,’ or the human will, remains a complex thing. Our kin and culture usually keep us ingrained in patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.”

Ingrained patterns of defiling self-destructiveness and idolatry.  From a cynical point of view, that could be the history of the human race in a nutshell.  But it’s not the whole story.  

Evil comes from within… but so does goodness.  Love, generosity, mercy, forgiveness, grace…these things come from the heart, too.  The love and mercy of God is poured out for each and every one of us so that we can learn to nurture these life-giving qualities in our own human hearts.  Love, generosity, mercy forgiveness and grace can grow in our hearts until they displace the greed and fear that lead to evil.  We have the promise, the love, and the guidance of Christ to change our hearts, to heal them, and thereby to change and heal the world.  We have the grace of Christ to teach us new patterns and new ways of being.  We have the transformative power of Christ to remake our traditions so they can become doorways of invitation instead of obstacles of exclusion.  Most of all, we have the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and give us a will to open our arms and embrace the world.  


[1] 1 Corinthians 11:29

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:27

[3] Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone; p.310

[4] anthrōpos

[5] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 460-61.

Crazy Bread

John 6:56-69

When you think about it objectively, religion is kind of strange.  The whole idea of it, if you step back and look at it from a certain perspective, is just king of odd.  The idea that if we meet regularly and perform certain rituals and pray a certain way and sing certain songs in a certain way, somehow God, the almighty, all powerful, omniscient Maker of the Universe, will like us better or come closer to us or overlook our bad behavior or give us things—that whole idea is, on the face of it, kind of bizarre.  And yet, that seems to be the way a great number of people understand God and church and faith and religion in general.  

Years ago, the late George Carlin had a very funny routine about all this.  I’m going to change one or two of his words because I don’t want to say them in church, but here’s what he said:

“When it comes to [bull puckey], big-time, major league [bull puckey], you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest [bull puckey] story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!

“But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good [bull puckey] story.” 

I have to tell you, if I thought for half a minute that God was anything like that, I’d be an atheist, too.  And the sad fact is, that this is exactly how a lot of religion and the Christian faith is presented and represented.  You think I’m exaggerating?  Go watch religious TV for a day and get back to me.  The picture you get is that God is distant, generally ticked off and inclined to be cranky, and it’s a good thing Jesus is there as our go-between because he keeps talking the Father down when he’s just itching to wipe us out altogether.  Except that in a lot of these “Christian” broadcasts, they think Jesus, himself, is going to come back any minute now  to settle our hash.  

Yikes!  He’s making a list, checking it twice, and you better believe he knows who’s naughty and who’s nice.  That’s not God!  That’s Santa Claus—and not in a fun way.  That’s Zeus throwing thunderbolts from Olympus!    

Richard Rohr said, “Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us.  Jesus came to change our minds about God.  God did not need Jesus to die on the cross to decide to love humanity. God’s love was infinite from the first moment of creation; the cross was just Love’s dramatic portrayal in space and time.”[1]  

Instead of responding to our violence with more violence, God, in Jesus, endured our violence and responded with grace, love, forgiveness and resurrection.  Jesus came to give us a new understanding of who God is and how God is at work in the world so we could have a fresh start in our relationship with God and with each other.

If God and Jesus are not punishing, vindictive, or violent, then we have no excuse for being that way.  Ever.  

Jesus is the human face of the Cosmic Christ—the nexus where spirit and matter intersect.  The Gospel of John[2] tells us that “all things came into being through him.”  In Colossians we see it spelled out a different way.  “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.[3]

This is not an invisible, cranky old Sky Man watching from a distance.  This is not Zeus or Santa Claus keeping score to determine rewards and punishments.  This is God who has poured the divine self into all of creation to infuse everything with love and goodness.  This is Christ in, with, and under not only the bread and wine of the table, but all things.  In him all things hold together.

In other words, there’s more than meets the eye in everything you see or touch.  There’s more than meets the eye in everything.  Period.  As it says in Ephesians, Christ is in all and through all.[4]

It’s like Crazy Bread at little Caesar’s.  If you just glance at it, you’ll just see breadsticks.  If you pick one up, though, you’ll find it kind of slippery because it’s slathered in butter and dusted with granules of Parmesan.  And if it happens to be a piece of stuffed Crazy Bread, the minute you bite into it you’ll discover a surprise because it’s filled with melted mozzarella.  There’s more to it than meets the eye.  If you pass it up because you think it’s just a breadstick, you’ll miss the surprise. You’ll miss the experience.

When Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, he said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”[5]  

He wanted us to understand that he is incarnate, God is incarnate, in all things. The world is full of the life and light of Christ.  Yes, Christ is absolutely present in the bread and wine of communion.  But also in the soil where the wheat grew, and in the stalk of the plant and in the grains that were ground into flour.  He wants us to understand that he was incarnate in the vine and the grape and the yeast that ferments it into wine.  He wants us to understand that he is present in our coming together at the table in the same way he is present when water that bonds with flour to make dough, creating a new thing altogether—a thing that is still water and flour but also something different, something greater, something more.  He wants us to understand that he is present in the trials and troubles we share the same way he is present in the fire and heat that bakes the bread.  He wants us to understand that “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”[6] is more than a poetic metaphor—it’s an invitation to open our eyes and broaden our understanding so we can see Christ, so we can begin to see that in him all things hold together.  It’s an invitation to hold all life more dearly—not just ours, all life—because in him was life, and life is the light of humanity[7].  And by that light we understand that the life of Christ is infused into all living things and the planet itself.  By that life we participate in the eternal cycle of life, death, and resurrection—like the grains of wheat that fall to the earth and die but rises again in the fullness of a new existence.

“The words I have spoken,” said Jesus, “are spirit and life.”[8]  He went on to acknowledge that some people had difficulty with what he was saying.  Some took him far too literally when he talked about eating his flesh and blood.  They were offended.  They didn’t understand that it was his words that carried spirit and life.  They didn’t understand that he was the Word—the Word that became incarnate, embodied, living among us full of grace and truth.  The things he said didn’t fit the context of their religion—or at least not as they understood their religion.  So they turned away.

As I said at the beginning, religion is an odd thing.  It can help us understand or it can get in the way of our understanding.  It can open our hearts and minds, or it can close them.  It’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t come to give us a religion.  He came to show us the love of God in person.  He came so that we may have life in all its abundance.[9]


[1] A Nonviolent Atonement (At-One-Ment); Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation; 10/12/16

[2] John 1:3 ff

[3] Colossians 1:15 ff

[4] Ephesians 1:23; 4:6

[5] John 6:56 ff

[6] Psalm 34:8

[7] John 1:3

[8] John 6:63

[9] John 10:10

Our Mothering God in a World On Fire

John 6:51-58; Luke 1:46-55; Proverbs 9:1-6

There’s a prayer I pray every Monday as I read the lectionary texts for the week:  “Lord, what is it that you want to say to these people in this time and this place through these texts?”  I hold that prayer in my mind and heart all week. And then I listen.

I listen to the life of the congregation.  I listen to the world.  I listen to theologians, commentators and scholars in the things I read.  I listen to my colleagues.  I listen to my own heart.  I listen for the Holy Spirit.  I learned a long time ago that God speaks to us in a multitude of ways as we walk through the world.  So I listen.

This week, we had a choice between two different sets of lectionary readings. In the texts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, the focus in the Gospel lesson was on Jesus saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”   But this Sunday is also a day set aside to remember and lift up Mary, the mother of Jesus.  As I bounced back and forth between the two different themes and the two different sets of texts I found things in both that tugged at me, things that opened doors to things we need to think about and talk about as a community and people of faith… and, frankly, as a nation and as a world.  But I didn’t feel a definite pull to go with one over the other.  

So I kept listening.

One of the problems that pastors face is that there is just so much going on in the world and in our churches that God has been calling us to address that it’s hard to know where to start.  As one of my colleagues said in a meeting this week, the world is on fire, and I don’t know where to start to put it out.  

The world is, quite literally, on fire.  And we, the human race, collectively, can’t seem to find the will to put out the fire that threatens to destroy us and all the rest of the earth along with us.  With droughts and fires and floods and hurricanes, the change in our climate has become so manifestly real that anyone who still denies it sounds like they’ve been living in an alternate reality.  We have the science.  We know what needs to be done.  But the changes we need to make are so substantial, pervasive and dramatic that we can’t find the will to make a meaningful start.  We know that we need to radically change the way we live, in ways that are going to involve each and every one of us.  No one can sit this one out.  The change that has to happen if our children and grandchildren are going to have half a chance of living in a habitable world are scary.  And expensive.  So we’ve been dragging our feet.  We’ve been rationalizing.  But we can’t afford to do that anymore.  The world is on fire.

Our relationships are on fire, too.  In our purple church, our purple nation, our purple world, we keep trying to find the middle path between red and blue, but there’s been so much friction from the two sides rubbing each other the wrong way that the middle ground has become scorched and unstable.  So many bridges have been burned.  And if you try to discuss that simple fact, the finger-pointing starts all over again and plans and hopes for new bridges are set ablaze before foundations can even be laid.  

Red and blue, black and white—these are the binary patterns we know, and any suggestion of a world that’s broader and more colorful, a world that doesn’t fit the patterns we’re used to living in, raises our hackles.  There are whole states in our country right now where politicians are working to make sure that teachers are not allowed to address the historical fact that within our nation’s history one race of people held another race of people captive and brutally enslaved them.  That’s a wound that our nation will never recover from if we can’t open it up and cleanse it.  But it’s too hard to talk about.  There’s too much guilt festering in it.  So even though that wound is on fire with infection, we can’t seem to find the will to do what it takes to heal us.  We can’t seem to find the will to simply speak truth to each other with grace and humility.

Fear has such a hold on us that we stand frozen even as our world is on fire.  Fear—it gets expressed in denial, and greed, and in an aggressive assertion of individualism, an assertion of so-called “rights” at the expense of our mutual responsibility.  

We have bought into the lie of limitation.  We have bought into the idea of scarcity.  We have been taught to look out for number one first and let others take care of themselves if they can.  And all of this is a profound contradiction of what Jesus taught.  

In his book A Gospel of Hope, Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for the Jesus story of abundance.  We are the ones who decided that this story is the true story, and the four great verbs—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—constitute the true story of our lives.  As a result, we recognized that scarcity is a lie, a story repeated endlessly in order to justify injustice in the community.”  

Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need.  But not for everyone’s greed.”

Jesus gives us a living example of how it can be different.  He calls us to take, to bless, to break and to give—to take responsibility and treasure the resources God has placed in our hands, to recognize the goodness that God has provided, to divide things fairly among those who need them, and to give, to share, in order to meet the needs of the world.  

When Jesus called himself the bread of life, he was inviting us to take his way of thinking, seeing, living and being in the world into ourselves.  To swallow him whole—all that he is and all that means—his way of doing life in all its fullness.  His language was graphic and shocking so we would pay attention.  “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.”  For the life of the world.  He was telling us that he was all in, willing to pour out his life for the life of the world.  And he was inviting us all to be all in, too.

He didn’t talk about his “rights.”  He embraced a responsibility.  He didn’t complain about his discomfort.  He embraced the pain of a broken world and endured unspeakable torture in order to heal it.  He personally volunteered to show us in no uncertain terms that scarcity thinking—greed, fear and an insatiable hunger for control and power—lead inexorably to the innocent being crucified.  

When he called himself the bread of life, Jesus was also reminding us of the abundant generosity of God.  Jesus was reminding us of all the ways that God nurtures us and provides for us.  He was reminding us that everything that sustains us comes from God, that God is constantly mothering us.

On this day when we also remember Mary, the Mother of Jesus, it seems appropriate that we should stop and think about all the ways God has mothered us.  

Some people are uncomfortable thinking about God as our mother.  But the scriptures aren’t.  In Deuteronomy 32, God chides the people of Israel saying, “You forgot the God who gave your birth.”  In Isaiah 42, God compares Godself to a woman in labor.  In Isaiah 49 God is compared to a nursing mother.  In Isaiah 66, God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  

The scriptures describe God as a mother bear and a mother eagle.  Jesus likened himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks and told a parable in which God was like a woman looking for a lost coin.  

Some of the saints of the early church returned repeatedly to the image of God as a nursing mother.  Saint Augustine wrote, “When all is well with me, what am I but an infant suckling your milk and feeding on you?”  Ephrem of Syria wrote, “He has given suck — life to the universe.”  Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “Oh Life of my life!  Sustenance that sustains me!  For from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flows streams of milk bringing comfort to all the people….”  Mary, herself, in her Magnificat sang out, “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

In the late 3rd or early 4th century, a collection of hymns called the Odes to Solomon had this verse in it:  

“A cup of milk was offered to me

And I drank with sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

The Son is the cup,

And he who was milked is the Father,

And she who milked him is the Holy Spirit.”

The world is on fire.  And one of the flames we need to extinguish is the domineering inferno of patriarchy that has needlessly silenced and oppressed half of humanity for far too long.  God long ago gave us the imagery to go another way and the colors we need to paint outside the frame of male domination in the church and in the world.

In our first reading this morning from Proverbs, we heard this:

“Wisdom has built her house…

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls

                  from the highest places in the town,

         “You that are simple, turn in here!”

                  To those without sense she says,

         “Come, eat of my bread

                  and drink of the wine I have mixed.

         Lay aside immaturity, and live,

                  and walk in the way of insight.”  –Proverbs 9:1-6

The world is on fire.  But God, our mothering father, our fathering mother, has given us the everything we need to put out the fire, to live with cooler heads and warmer hearts.  We have Jesus, the bread of life, who gives his life for the life of the world.  We have God, our mothering father, our fathering mother who gives us all good things to take, to bless, to break and to share.  We have the Holy Spirit who guides us with the voice of Wisdom:  “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live.  And walk in the way of insight…”  for the life of the world. 

Asking the Wrong Questions

John 6:24-35

When I read this morning’s gospel lesson, I couldn’t help but think of something Annie Dillard wrote in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  It’s a wonderful and thought-provoking little book, by the way, full of wisdom and pithy nuggets that get right to the heart of things as she thinks about life, and nature, and God.  Anyway, here’s the part that came to mind as I read this morning’s gospel.  She had been listening to a mockingbird singing from her chimney, and she found herself wondering, “What is she saying in her song?”  But then she paused and thought,  “No; we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. If the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formula for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?”  

Why is it beautiful?  That’s a transcendent question.  That’s a question that leads us more directly into an encounter with Christ’s presence in the song the mockingbird sings.  Why is there something in me that finds that lilting melody beautiful?  Why is there something built into me that thrills to life when I encounter beauty?  Why does anything that’s truly beautiful—the song of the mockingbird, the colors of sunrise or sunset—why is it that something that’s truly beautiful creates in us a sense of longing?  If you start to ask those kinds of questions, you are on your way to encountering the sublime presence of Christ that surrounds us all the time and everywhere; you’re on your way to what Richard Rohr calls “falling upward” into the Ground of All Being in whom we live, and move and have our being.

You can’t find the right answers if you’re asking the wrong questions.  

That’s one of the things that’s happening in today’s gospel.  The crowd is asking Jesus the wrong questions.  They had followed him across the lake to the outskirts of Tiberius, and when they got hungry, Jesus fed them—the whole multitude—by sharing out 5 loaves and two fish that a young boy had brought with him.  At nightfall, Jesus slipped off into the hills to be alone for a while and the disciples quietly sailed off for Capernaum.  

The next morning, when the crowd saw that Jesus and the disciples were gone, they headed back across the lake to Capernaum to look for Jesus.  When they found him, the first thing they asked him was, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

It’s the wrong question.  It doesn’t lead to anything—at least not to anything Jesus is interested in discussing.  So he cuts to the chase. “I tell you the solemn truth,” he says.  “You are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had all you wanted.”  

He sees right to the heart of their motives.  Our motives.  How often do we seek out God, how often do we come to Christ saying, “Take care of my needs.  Satisfy my hunger.  Fulfill my desire.”?  We may not be saying it out loud, or we may be saying it in very prayerful language, but how often when we come to Jesus are we basically saying, “Jesus do the magic again.  Solve my problem.  Fill my belly.”

“Do not work for the food that perishes,” says Jesus, “but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”  Change your focus, says Jesus.  You’re overlooking what matters.

But do they say, “Tell us more about that food that endures for eternal life.  What is that?  Who is the Human One—is that you?  What are you talking about exactly?”  No, they don’t say any of those things.  Instead, when they realize he’s not going to do the bread trick again and give them a late breakfast, they ask him, “What do we have to do to perform the works of God?” 

Once again, they ask the wrong question.  It’s a controlling question.  They want to know how they can get God to do what they want.  They want Jesus to teach them the magic trick.  It’s clear that they don’t really understand what they’re asking.  They ask how they can do the works of God, but they don’t even know what the work of God is.

So Jesus once again redirects.  “This is the work of God,” he says.  “Believe in him whom God has sent.” 

And now they’re finally starting to catch on that he’s talking about himself.  So they say to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?”  And then they go on about Moses giving their ancestors manna in the wilderness.  “Bread from heaven” they call it.   It’s more than a little ironic, really.  You want a sign?  Did you not eat your fill at yesterday’s picnic—that little miracle that started with 5 loves and 2 fish?  Have you not seen all the healings?  Once again Jesus has to redirect.

“I tell you the solemn truth,” says Jesus, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  

“Well then give us this bread all the time!” That’s their response.  And it sure sounds like they’re still thinking about, well, bread.  Magic bread, maybe.  But bread.  They asked for the right thing this time, but they’re still thinking of it in the wrong way.  They’re missing the point.  So Jesus spells it out for them.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty again.”

Blaise Pascal once said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”  Jesus is the bread of life who fills that hunger.  Jesus is the living water who quenches that thirst.  But we won’t come to a useful understanding of what that means if we’re asking the wrong questions or getting distracted with trains of thought that don’t go anywhere.  If we’re just thinking about physical food, we’re going to completely miss the spiritual nutrition that Jesus is providing.

You are what you eat.  When Jesus says that he is the bread of life, he is telling us to swallow him whole, to take him completely into ourselves so that we can be completely complete in him.  That’s what the sacrament is all about.  It’s a sign—not merely a symbol, but a sign.  It points to Christ.  It tells us what to do.  Take and eat.  Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  He wants the deepest level of intimacy possible with us.  He wants us to be completely infused with who he is and what he is about and how he lives in and loves us, and how he lives in and loves the world through us.  He wants to be part of our very cells so that wherever we go, he goes, too.

But we won’t get to that level of intimacy and understanding if we’re always asking Jesus the wrong questions or focusing on the wrong things.  Learning to ask the right questions is vitally important in your own relationship with Jesus, and it’s also hugely important in our life together as the church.

What are some of the wrong questions we’ve been asking as a church?   I know I’ve been asking, “Lord, how can we get more people into the church?”  Maybe what I really should be asking is, “Lord, how can we bring the church to more people?” or simply “Lord, who are we missing and why?”  

Or maybe we should be asking for something even more basic and broader than that.  Maybe we should be asking, “Jesus, help us to see you more clearly in, with, and under all things.  Help us to see the image and likeness of God in every face we face.  Help us to love them as deeply and completely as you love them.  Help us to fall upward into the fullness of you.  

And when we hear the mockingbird sing, help us to understand why we find it so beautiful and what it is we’re longing for.

This Moment

Thoughts Along the Way…

I came across a meme today on Facebook that really made me stop and think.  The heading was Ancestral Mathematics.  Here’s what it said:

“In order to be born, you needed:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 second great grandparents

32 third great-grandparents

64 fourth great-grandparents

128 fifth great-grandparents

256 sixth great-grandparents

512 seventh great-grandparents

1,024 eighth great-grandparents

2,048 ninth great-grandparents

For you to be born today from 12 previous generations, you needed a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years.  Think for a moment—How many struggles?  How many battles?  How many difficulties?  How much sadness?  How much happiness?  How many love stories?  How many expressions of hope for the future?—did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment…”

Some of my cousins connected me to a website called Family Search.  I’m not nearly as involved in exploring our family tree as some of them, but I do find it interesting to trace things back a few generations.  I’ve become curious about the lives of these people to whom I am directly related.  I’ve heard bits and snatches of some of their stories, but I know nothing at all about most of them.  I’ve been surprised by all the surnames that I didn’t know even though their DNA is part of me and their story is part of my story.  Beckham, I know, of course.  But there is  also Curtis, Casey, Owen, Whitely, Moody, Maynard, Wayne, Stapleton, Lawrence, Malmgren, Davidson, Larm, Carlson, Andersdotter, Flykt…  The names take me on a journey not only back in time but to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world.   I have inherited something, however small, from each of them.  

As I thought about all of this, I realized two things.  First, the universe, and Christ who is in, with, and under everything the universe does, has worked long and hard to bring us here.  All the generations before us with all their struggles and all their joys have brought us, you and me, to this place and this time.  That’s got to mean something.  And if it doesn’t mean anything existentially in and of itself, then we can bring meaning to it.  We can bring love to it.  We can see the moment and we can love the moment.  And we can love each other in the moment.  We can love God in the moment.  That’s part of what being the Beloved Community is all about: honoring the moment and honoring everything it took to bring us here.

And that brings me to the second thing I realized.  We have inherited our faith, too.  Whether you grew up in a home where faith in Christ was part of the atmosphere or whether you came to faith in Christ in some other circumstances in some other context, by some unexpected path, faith was handed down to you by others.  It was a gift of grace.  It has been passed down to us in a steady succession of believers all the way back to the apostles.  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote St. Paul to the saints in Corinth (1 Cor 15:3),  and they in turn handed it on to their children and their friends.  And so on through the ages.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)   But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate all those who have given us this moment.

A Tale of Two Daughters

Mark 5:21-43

In her book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes,  “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

In today’s Gospel lesson we have a dramatic story of two desperate people from very different circumstances who acted in faith.  They reached out to Jesus because they believed he could help them.  Both of them act on their desperate hopes in public, and take significant risks in doing so, but to understand what’s at stake for them, we need to understand more about two important dynamics in  their culture.  

Ancient Palestine, like most of the ancient world, operated socially as what cultural anthropologists call an “honor culture.”  Sometimes it’s called an “honor/shame” culture.”  This was a highly formal system based on one’s status in society.  Your position and place in society determined with whom you could associate and how you could speak and interact with them.  Male roles and female roles were governed by rigid boundaries and those boundaries were strictly observed.  Shame was the tool that was used to enforce those boundaries.   A person’s reputation and status were vitally important.  One could quite literally take them to the bank,  and if you had any kind of status and reputation at all you were always careful not to do anything to risk your standing in the community.

The other dynamic that’s important in this Gospel lesson is the concept of “clean and unclean” as it was defined by Levitical law in Torah.  I think after 15 months of “social distancing” and Covid-19 precautions we might understand this one a little better than we did in the past.

Most common things were assumed to be “clean” but there were a number of ways to become “unclean.”  Any scaly skin condition made one unclean.  Psoriasis, for instance.  Any discharge of bodily fluids, including menstruation, made one unclean.  Touching a non-kosher animal, touching a dead animal or touching a human corpse made one unclean.  Touching a clay pot that had been touched by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Touching a garment worn by an unclean person could make you unclean.  Unclean was contagious.  So persons who were unclean were isolated.  And persons who were long-term unclean, such as lepers or the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story, were outcast—they were forbidden to put themselves in any kind of situation where they might “contaminate” others.  

So now with all of that as background, maybe we can begin to see that these two stories, especially as Mark has woven them together, would have been absolutely shocking to those who were originally reading or hearing them.

The two main characters could not be more different, in fact, they stand in sharp contrast to each other.  Jairus is male, wealthy, president of the synagogue.  He is at the top of the “honor” ladder.  For what it is worth, he is one of the few characters other than the disciples who is named in Mark’s gospel.  The hemorrhaging woman is female, impoverished, excluded from the synagogue because of her condition.  She is anonymous. 

But both of them break rules and cross boundaries because they are desperate and they believe Jesus can help them.

When Jairus saw Jesus, he fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”  Remember those rules of honor culture and social standing?  A man in Jairus position would be expected to bow deeply to Jesus when making a request if he regarded Jesus as an equal.  With the whole crowd looking on, Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs repeatedly for Jesus to come heal his daughter.  In doing this, he puts all his social currency on the line.  If things don’t go well, the crowd will remember how he put his dignity aside and shamed himself.  

For the hemorrhaging woman, it’s another story altogether.  She’s trying to remain invisible, blending into the crowd.  She’s not supposed to be there at all.  But after twelve years of being an outcast, after losing all her money to quack physicians who only made things worse, she had nothing left to lose.  You can imagine her thinking here:  “If touching my clothes can make someone unclean, maybe touching Jesus’ clothes can heal me.”  So she reached out as Jesus was passing by and touched his cloak.

Can you imagine how Jairus feels, what Jairus is thinking, when Jesus suddenly stops.  They’re on the way to his house so Jesus can heal his daughter.  “My little daughter,” he had called her, a term of endearment and affection.  My baby girl.  Time is of the essence.  She is “at the point of death.”  And now, suddenly, Jesus stops and says, “Who touched my clothes?” 

Poor Jairus has got to be going out of his mind.  He must be getting frantic.  He’s got to be thinking what the disciples are saying: “Look at the crowd pressing in on you.  Who didn’t touch you?”  

But Jesus knew that this touch was different.  This touch had faith in it.  And desire.  And hope.  And longing.  And Jesus isn’t taking another step until he knows who it was who reached out to him with all that in her heart. 

“The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came to him with fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  

Fear and trembling.  Even if she were whole and healthy, it was inappropriate in their culture for her to touch him.  As it was, in her condition, it had been a flagrant violation of the Torah.  Would he rebuke her?  Would he somehow revoke her healing?  Would Jairus, the president of the synagogue demand that she be punished? Would the crowd become indignant and drag her off and stone her?  

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

He called her daughter.  He gave her status and identity.  She would forever be the one Jesus had called daughter.  A daughter of Israel.  A daughter of the kingdom.  A daughter of Jesus.  He told her to go in peace—a word not just to her, but to the crowd in case they had any ideas about punishing her.  He protected her with a word of peace, a safe passage.  He commended her faith and reaffirmed that she was healed.  He returned her to wholeness.  He returned her to community.

And that’s when the bottom fell out of Jairus’ world.  While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from his house to tell him that his daughter had died and there was no point in troubling the teacher any further.  I wonder what he thought, then, when Jesus turned to him and said, “Do not fear, only believe.”  Did he still believe at that point that Jesus could save his little daughter?

When they got to Jairus’ house all the wailing and weeping and noise of Palestinian mourning was already in progress, and when Jesus asked, “Why are you weeping and making all this noise?  She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they laughed at him.  But he shooed them all outside then took Jairus and the child’s mother in to where the child was laid on her bed.  

He took her hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means.  “Little girl, get up!”  And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about. And they were overcome with amazement.

There are all kinds of boundaries that are crossed in these two stories.  All kinds of rules that are broken.  All kinds of traditions that are ignored.

Jesus is on his way to help an important person from the top rung of the social ladder with a life-and-death emergency, but he stops to help a “nobody” who has been removed from the social ladder entirely.  

The hemorrhaging woman touched him, making him unclean.  But he ignores this law and restores her to health, restores her cleanness, and protects her with a word of peace. 

When he takes the dead girls’ hand, he is technically unclean yet again.  Yet again he ignores the whole clean/unclean business.

Jesus is teaching his disciples and teaching us that sometimes for the sake of healing, for the sake of compassion, for the sake of simply doing the right thing, boundaries have to be crossed, traditions have to be ignored, and laws may even have to be broken.  When faith reaches out in hope asking for help, then we do what we have to do, following the example of Jesus.

And that brings us back around to Verna Dozier’s question: “The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”

Is your faith moving you to do what needs to be done for those who are reaching out in hope and asking for help, even if it means  you have to cross some boundaries?