Narrativium

Thoughts Along the Way…

On the second shelf from the top in the bookcase across from my desk The Active Life by Parker Palmer is lying atop Return to Stillness by Trevor Carolan.  Return to Stillness, in turn, rests atop Wishful Thinking by Frederick Buechner.  At least once a day the odd and accidental stacking of these three titles makes me smile.  In some oblique way I’m pretty sure that this is a map of my psyche.  Narrativium stacked those books that way, I’m sure of it. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about narrativium.  I discovered narrativium while reading The Science of Discworld by Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen and the late and much-lamented Terry Pratchett, creator of the Discworld series of books.  I started reading it on vacation and I’ve been taking the book in small bites because it contains a lot of good, real-world science, well explained—everything from quantum theory to biology to climatology to geology and plate tectonics.  Between the chapters of real-world science is a pretty funny story about Discworld magic and the bumbling wizards of Unseen University.  In their universe, narrativium is an essential element.  Copper, iron, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, narrativium.  Narrativium is the element that drives everything else.  It makes oxygen and hydrogen combine to form water because that’s their narrative, their story.  It drives living things to evolve because that’s how you eventually get orangutans and bananas and keep the story of everything else moving along.  Narrativium is what makes all things, animate or inanimate, live out their destinies.  

Narrativium is, I think, a handy, or at least a playful way to think about an important theological concept.  “In the beginning was the Word,” we read in the powerfully poetic creation narrative at the opening of  the Gospel of John.  The Greek word that we translate as “Word” is logos, and one of the oldest meanings of logos is “story” or “narrative.”  In the beginning was narrativium.  The story.  The Narrative.  And the Narrative created context.  And the Narrative stepped into the context and dwelt among us.  And that’s when the story really got rolling.  God is not only the One Who Is (which is one way to translate the divine name God reveals to Moses in Exodus), God is the Narrative in whom we live and move and have our being!  God is the story.

There’s a terrific little book by Prof. Amy-Jill Levine called Short Stories by Jesus.  Jesus knew that we understand life by the stories we hear, the stories we tell and the stories we live, so when he wanted to get a point across, he told stories. Parables. Narrativium.  We explain our most complex ideas with stories.  Sometimes the story is told with music, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in prose, sometimes in calculus, but it’s always a story.  Once upon a time two hydrogen atoms bumped into an oxygen atom and made water. E=mc2. Once before time God said, “Let there be light.”  

So what’s your story?  What stack of titles maps your psyche?  How does your story fit into the Great Story who became flesh and dwelt among us, the Narrative in whom we live and move and have our being?  Is it being told with calculus or simple arithmetic?  Is it a saga set to music?  Is there a chapter where you dance?  Are you working on a good ending?  Oh… and are you getting enough narrativium in your diet?

Stand Still

Mark 10:46-52

One of the things you can do to really bring stories from the Bible to life and get more meaning from them is to picture yourself in the story.  Read through it slowly and think about each of the characters, then ask yourself, “Who am I in this story?”  

So let’s go through this episode again, and as we do, think about who you might be if you were one of the characters in this narrative.  

Jesus and his disciples are on the way up to Jerusalem.   As they pass through Jericho, there’s a large crowd with them because by this time Jesus has become pretty well known, but also a lot of people are travelling to Jerusalem for the coming Passover.  As they’re leaving town—Jesus, the disciples, the crowd—they encounter Bartimaeus, a blind beggar sitting at the side of the road.  Very few of the minor characters in Mark’s gospel are named, so we have a clue that maybe we should pay a little more attention to Bartimaeus.  

Bartimaeus hears the crowd shuffling by and when he hears someone mention Jesus, he shouts out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tries to silence him, but he persists and shouts out all the more loudly, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”  

And this is when a fascinating little thing happens in the story.  It’s fascinating, but it’s small, so it’s easy to slide right past it.  It says in the text, “Jesus stood still.”  Jesus hears Bartimaeus over the hubbub of the crowd and he stops.  And stands still.  

Can you picture it?  Jesus is standing perfectly still, so the crowd stops.  They stand still, too.  Everybody stops to see why Jesus has stopped and is just standing there, right there in the middle of the road.  That—that moment when everything has come to a standstill—that is when Jesus says, “Call him over.”  So someone in the crowd calls out to Bartimaeus, “Cheer up! On your feet!  He’s calling you!”  

Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, leaps to his feet and sprints over to Jesus.  So now they’re face to face, and Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”  “My teacher,” says Bartimaeus, “let me see again.”  The Jesus says to him, “Go.  Your faith has healed you.”  And just like that, Bartimaeus can see again.

But he doesn’t go.  At least he doesn’t go back to what he was doing before.  Instead, he follows Jesus on the way.

So if you put yourself in this story, who are you?

Maybe you’re a bystander.   You live in Jericho in a nice little house right there on the main road.  It’s a great place for people-watching.  Everyone who’s on the way to Jerusalem goes right by your door.  You see Jesus passing through, and you’re interested.  You’ve heard a lot about him.  You would certainly be willing to engage in a polite conversation with him if he suddenly wandered over to your porch and asked for a drink of water.  But he seems determined to keep moving, so that’s not going to happen.  Plus there are all those other people with him, so even if you felt moved to go over to him, how close could you get?  And what would you talk about anyway?  No, all things considered, it’s easier to just watch the Jesus parade from the safe distance of your front porch.  You don’t need to get in the middle of it.  Better not to get involved.  But wait a minute… he’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  What’s he doing?  O look!  He’s going to do something about that annoying beggar who’s always just sitting there across the road from your house, bothering people for spare change.  About time somebody did something about him.  You know, there ought to be a law to keep people like that from cluttering up nice neighborhoods like this.  

So is that who you are in this story?

If you’re not a bystander, maybe you’re one of the disciples.  You’ve been following Jesus for quite a while now, so long that sometimes you forget why you’re still with him, especially with some of the things he’s been saying lately—telling you he’s going to be rejected by the priests and authorities and then crucified… What the heck does all that mean, anyway?  He’s got to be talking figuratively, right?  You’d ask him to explain it again, but it’s so hard to get any time alone with him lately.  This crowd is around all the time and it just seems to keep growing.  He talks about getting to Jerusalem like it’s so urgent, but then he’ll stop to heal someone or share an observation about something or debate someone, and the next thing you know you’ve lost half an hour—or half a day.  Maybe after Jerusalem, after the Passover, things will get back to normal…not that your time with him has ever been anything like normal.  You can’t remember the last time you just had a day off to sit in the shade and think.  Every time you try to get away the crowd seems to find you and they bring along everyone who so has so much the sniffles to see if he can heal them.  It seems like you’re spending all your time and energy lately on crowd control.  And even when you’re on the move there are people on the road who want his attention—like that noisy blind beggar over there.   Aaaand, there it is.  He’s stopping.  Huh… he’s just standing there.  Okay, here we go, he’s calling the beggar over to him.  The way things have been going, that guy’s going to want to join the group and follow you.  Just what you need.  Another hanger-on.  Another mouth to feed.  Maybe after Jerusalem you can just chuck it all and head back to Galilee.  

So is that who you are in this story?  One of the disciples?

Maybe you’re part of the large crowd.  You’ve been trying to get closer to Jesus so you can hear what he’s saying, and there’s so much you want to ask him, but every time you think you see a way to squeeze in closer, someone jostles you aside and you’re back where you started.  It’s no fun just being part of the crowd, surrounded by all this noise.  Every time Jesus starts to say something the people right behind you start talking about some mundane thing or another and you can’t hear Jesus over their loud voices.  It seems like everybody just shouts, and the bigger the crowd gets, the louder they get.  Haven’t they ever heard of nice, quiet conversational voices?  Oh great.  Who’s shouting now?  Someone tell that beggar to shut up.  It’s hard enough already to hear what Jesus is saying.  Wait… what’s Jesus doing?  He’s stopping.  He’s just standing there.  Everybody’s stopped.  Hey, this is your chance to get closer to him while everyone’s just standing there.  Oh no.  He’s calling the beggar over to him.  And isn’t that just your luck.  Well, it’s still a good hike to Jerusalem.  Maybe you’ll find a way to get close to him while you’re on the way.

So is that who you are in this story?  Someone who is travelling the same road in the same direction but not really getting close enough to Jesus to get the full picture of who he is and what he’s about and what he means for you?

Are you, maybe, Bartimaeus?  You sit passively by the side of the road as the rest of the world rolls along in front of you, waiting for any little bit of grace or kindness that someone might toss your way.  You would be proactive, making your own way forward, but there’s that one great affliction that stops you, that limits your opportunities and abilities.  And you’ve become so dependent.  If only you could see again.  Or hear again.  Or walk again.  Or think again.  Or laugh again.  Or feel again.  If only there was some light in your darkness, or music in your silence, or strength in your limbs, or clarity in your heart and mind.  You are so tired of being invisible on the sidelines, so tired of the miasma that your life has become.  You hear the crowd ambling by and out of your darkness you ask over and over again, “Anything for me?  Can you spare anything for me?”  And then someone mentions Jesus.  Jesus of Nazareth.  The teacher.  The healer.  The life changer.  You grasp at the straw.  You’re surprised at the force of your own voice as you cry out, “Jesus, Son of David!  Have mercy on me!”  Somebody tries to silence you.  They’re annoyed with you.  They tell you not to bother them—and not to bother the teacher with your need.  With your existence.  But suddenly all the noise stops.  There’s an unnerving silence.  The shuffling crowd is standing still, holding their breath.  Then someone says, “He’s calling you.”  You throw aside everything as you leap to your feet.  Finally, there’s hope for you.  Unseen hands guide you to him until you feel his presence right in front of you.  With you.  And then he asks you the oddest question:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  And part of you just wants to scream.  Can’t he see your affliction?  Can’t he see the great obstacle that’s keeping you from really entering into the fullness of life?  But then it dawns on you…Jesus is not presuming that dealing with your obvious affliction is the thing you most want most from him.  He is treating you like a whole person.  He is waiting for you to tell him what you want most.  And you realize that what you want most, what you need most, is to follow him, but you could do that so much more easily if first he heals you.  So you say let me see again.  Let me hear music again.  Let there be a spring in my step again.  Let my mind and heart be clear again.  Let me laugh again.  Let me feel again.  

So is this who you are in the story?  Are you the person in need at the side of the road?  There’s no shame in that.  Most of us have been that person at one time or another, waiting for our moment of healing.  Is that you?

Or are, perhaps, you’re Jesus?  Don’t dismiss that idea with false humility.  Don’t inflate it with ego, either.  Martin Luther said we are called to be “little Christs” to each other.  Saint Paul tells us that as followers of Jesus on the Way, Christ is in us and we are in Christ.  Jesus, himself, said that just as he was immersed in the life and love of the Father, so we are immersed in his life and love.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us… The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:20-23)

So you could be Jesus in the story.  You could be the one who brings compassion and healing and sight to someone crying out from the side of the road.

Is that who you are?

I think we have all been all of these—the bystander, the distracted disciple, the person going along with the crowd, the person in need.  But for a moment, let’s just stand still.  Let’s stand still so we can hear the voice calling out for mercy.  Let’s stand still so we can see the need that’s begging at the side of the road.   Then from this turning point on the Way, may God empower us to be “little Christs,” bringing attention, compassion, and healing to those who cry out from the side of the road.

In Jesus’ name.

Image © Julia Stakova, Bulgarian artist

Whatever We Ask

Mark 10:35-45

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

There’s an interesting picture that’s been popping up here and there in social media.  It’s a picture of a middle-aged man washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen.  Now you might think, “What’s so interesting about that?”  Well the thing that makes this picture interesting is that the man washing dishes in the restaurant kitchen is Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jon Bon Jovi, the front man for the very successful rock band, Bon Jovi. 

Back in 2011 Jon and his wife Dorothea wanted to do something to help hungry people, but they didn’t want it to be just another food pantry or soup kitchen.  Food banks and soup kitchens do good work, but they also tend to isolate hungry people from everyone else or spotlight them—and not in a good way.   

Jon and Dorothea decided to open a restaurant where payment is optional so that folks who cannot afford a restaurant meal can dine right alongside those who can.  That’s how JBJ Soul Kitchen came to be.  The menu has no prices.  You select what you like and are encouraged to make a suggested donation. If you are unable to donate, you are invited to participate in what they call “volunteer opportunities,” which usually entails working in the kitchen in one way or another.  When he’s not on tour, Jon Bon Jovi himself often stops in to volunteer as a waiter, cook or dishwasher.  

When the pandemic hit, though, JBJ Soul Kitchen had to change its model.  “Due to the pandemic,” said Jon in a recent interview, “we couldn’t have any volunteers work. But we still had mouths to feed. So Dorothea and I worked five days a week for two months before we went to Long Island and opened a food bank that fed 6,000 people a month there.”

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

If you log in to a particular YouTube channel on any given evening, you’ll find one of the richest, most successful women in the world sitting on her bed in her pajamas reading a children’s book.  The lady in her PJs is none other than Dolly Parton, and her YouTube program, Goodnight with Dolly, is targeted toward preschoolers, because children who have someone read to them on a regular basis develop their own reading skills earlier and more easily.  Dolly understood that not every parent has free time to sit and read with their kids, especially single parents.  And not all parents read well enough, themselves, to provide their kids with that important head start.  That was the case with Dolly’s own father who started working while still very young and as a result never learned to read or write.  So Dolly Parton decided that, in honor of her father, she would help as many kids as possible develop those very necessary pre-reading and early reading abilities.

Goodnight with Dolly is the newest venture in Dolly Parton’s long-time campaign for literacy.  In 1995, Dolly launched the Imagination Library in Sevier County, her home county in East Tennessee, to inspire a love of reading by giving one free children’s book a month to every child in the county from age two until they start school.  With the help of local community partners, the Imagination Library has now spread throughout the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Ireland.  Nearly two million kids are now registered in the Imagination Library, and the organization has given away more than 165 million books.  But there are still others who haven’t been reached.  So Dolly Parton sits on her bed in her pajamas and reads to the kids whose parents aren’t available or able to read to them.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

The Disciples James and John came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  When he asked them what they wanted, they said, “Let one of us sit at your right hand and one at your left when you come into your glory.”  

It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t chastise them even a little for asking something so audacious.  He simply tells them that they don’t know what they’re asking.  He hints at the ordeal he will soon endure when he asks them,  “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  They answer just a little too quickly:  “We are able,”  and it seems pretty clear that they don’t know what they’re in for.

We shouldn’t be too hard on James and John.  To their credit, they really do have faith.  They believe that Jesus can give them what they want.  They believe that he will soon “come into his glory.”  They just don’t understand what that means.  

A lot of us have come to Jesus at one time or another saying, “I want you to give me whatever I ask of you.”  A lot of people have thought that this is really the essence of praying.  Give me what I ask for.  And a lot of us have asked at one time or another to be put in positions of authority and prestige—right seat or left seat, either one is okay as long as we have a seat at the table.  We want that position that gives us the authority to fix all those things that other people are messing up.  We have ambition.

Jesus doesn’t chastise them for their ambition.  But the other disciples do.  So Jesus has to remind them all of what he has been saying all along.  You want to be a leader?  Fine!  Good!  Now, can you be a servant?

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

When Boris Baranov was appointed to the position of Shift Supervisor at the powerplant where he worked, he was given significant authority over some of the plant’s operations.  Along with that authority, of course, came some extra responsibilities.  Boris never dreamed, though, that saving most of Europe from becoming a nuclear wasteland would be one of those responsibilities.  But then, the powerplant where Boris worked was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. 

On April 26, 1986 one of the four reactors at Chernobyl exploded releasing 400 times more radioactive fallout than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.  The toll of that explosion was significant.  Two workers were killed instantly.  Another 29 would die from radiation burns or poisoning over the next few months.  

All the fires were extinguished within six hours, but now there was a risk of an even larger explosion—an explosion that would be many times more devastating.  

Several days after they thought that everything was under control, they discovered that the reactor in unit 4 had continued to melt down. Below the reactor was a thick concrete slab and below the slab was a large pool of water which was normally used to cool the reactor.  The core of the badly damaged reactor was now melting its way through the concrete slab.  If it were to reach the water, it would create an gargantuan steam explosion with a force of 3 to 5 megatons.  The enormous cloud of radioactive steam and ash that would have risen into the wind from that explosion would have made much of Europe uninhabitable for 500,000 years. 

To prevent the explosion, the water under the reactor had to be drained, but the only way to do that was by manually turning the right valves which were in the basement, and the basement was already flooded with radioactive water from putting out the fires.  Boris Baranov, the shift supervisor, Valeri Bespalov, the senior engineer, and mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko volunteered to wade into the flooded basement and turn the valves.  Their brave and selfless act of service saved millions of lives.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

There’s nothing wrong with ambition.  Jesus doesn’t rebuke James and John for their ambition.  He even affirms that they will in the end drink from his “cup” and be immersed in his “baptism.”  But he wants them to understand that ambition for ambition’s sake can lead to responsibilities you’re not prepared for, challenges you haven’t even begun to imagine.  

James and John wanted to be great, to sit in positions of prestige and authority.  And in the end, in a way, they got what they asked for.  According to tradition, after ten or twelve years proclaiming the gospel in Palestine alongside his brother John and the rest of the disciples,  James took the gospel to Spain.  In the end he returned to Jerusalem where he was killed by Herod Agrippa.  Again according to tradition, John took the gospel to Ephesus.  James and John found direction for their ambition.  But along the Way they had to learn a very hard lesson. 

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

Tough Love

Mark 10:17-31

In 1962 while on a visit to America, Karl Barth, the famous Swiss theologian, was asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a single sentence.  Barth replied, “Why yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

I realized the other day that I haven’t reminded people of this simple truth nearly enough in my years as a pastor.  Jesus loves you.  I hope you can hear it again—maybe hear it fresh as if for the first time:  Jesus loves you.  The Holy Spirit loves you.  God loves you.  Let that sit with you for a minute.  

The simple truth is that God’s love for you is the starting point for…everything.  Why are you here on earth having a life?  Because God loves you.  God worked through all of the history of the universe to make sure you would be here to be loved.  

That is such an extraordinary thing to think about.  Jesus loves me.  This I know. When you hold that thought in your mind and heart for even a five uninterrupted minutes of contemplation, it’s mind boggling.  

I think that a lot of us who have lived any time at all in the embrace of the Christian faith, and especially if we have lived in the bosom of the church—I think we’ve forgotten this.  Or maybe just taken it for granted.   But the plain truth is that being loved by God is a thing that should astonish us at least once a day.  Preferably when we first get up in the morning.

The thing that got me thinking about all this is that there is a moment in verse 21 of our gospel text for this week that catches me off guard every time I read it.  It’s only in Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the man “who had many possessions.”  For some reason Matthew and Luke don’t record this detail.  Here it is:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  

I don’t know which is more odd: that Mark bothers to make note of this or that Matthew and Luke don’t.  

I’ll circle back to this in a minute.

This passage, Mark 10:17-31, is so rich with things that deserve our attention that we could look at this  together for weeks and still just be scratching the surface.  For instance, there’s the question Jesus asks the rich man right at the beginning of their conversation: “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Why does he say that?  What are we supposed to make of that?

There’s the matter of eternal life…which is not the same thing as endless life.  Do you know the difference?  There’s a distinction there that is definitely worthy of more attention.

The rich man has asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s a strange question.  An inheritance is something that’s left to you.  Given to you.  Passed down to you.  You don’t “do” anything to inherit things except maybe try not to get disinherited.  Even if you work very hard to be in the good graces of your benefactor, though, in the end it’s their decision that determines if you will or won’t inherit anything.

Jesus tells the man, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  Why does he add “you shall not defraud” to the list?  That’s not one of the Ten Commandments.  Matthew and Luke don’t include this, either.  So why does Jesus include this in his list of commandments here in Mark?   The word in Greek for defraud is apostereō.  It means “to cause someone to suffer loss through illicit means, to illegally deprive someone.”  In Deuteronomy 24 in the Greek version of the Old Testament, a form of  that word is used in the statute that prohibits withholding wages from the poor, the needy, and immigrants.  Is that why Jesus, in Mark, thinks that the rich man needs to be reminded of this statute?  Is there something we’re missing here? That would be worth some study. 

Finally, of course, there’s the issue that appears to be the whole point of this encounter.  “You lack one thing,” said Jesus. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the  rich man heard this, he was shocked.  And went away grieving.  For he had many possessions.

The rich man had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  And Jesus, forthright as always, told him. Go sell your stuff.  Give the money away.  Then come and follow me on the Way to eternal life.

Eternal life flows from God as a gift of grace…but you can’t fully receive that gift if something is getting in the way between you and God.  The rich man didn’t realize it, but he had another god standing in his way—standing between him and the one true God—between him and life eternal.  

If Jesus had just told him that he was dangerously close to committing idolatry, he probably would have denied it.  He probably would have quite truthfully responded that he had never bowed down to an idol or visited the temple of another god.  But idolatry is rarely as simple as just worshipping graven images. 

If Jesus had just told him that there was another god standing between him and God, an idol who was strangling the flow of life from God so that the river of life had been reduced to a trickle, he probably wouldn’t have understood.  He probably would have pointed to his wealth and said, “But clearly God has been blessing me.”

“Show me what you trust, what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god,” said Martin Luther.  The rich man’s heart was clinging to his many possessions.  They were dragging him away from the thing he wanted and needed most.  They were throttling his spiritual growth.  So Jesus told him to just get rid of it all.  

But he couldn’t.  He just couldn’t imagine himself doing what Jesus prescribed for him.  Jesus might as well have asked him to jump over the moon.  Or try to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle.

So why did Jesus ask him to do the impossible—or at least something impossible for him?  I think the answer is in that odd line that only appears here in Mark:  

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  

Jesus looked at him…and really saw him.  He saw what he wanted.  He saw what he needed.  He saw what was in the way.  Jesus saw him.  Everything about him.  

And he loved him. 

When you love someone, you’ll do anything you can to help them be healthy and whole.  Sometimes the things love demands of us are really difficult—like letting your kids make their own mistakes, for instance, because you know that’s how they’ll really learn.  Sometimes love makes you say hard things for the good of the beloved. Like telling an alcoholic that they flat out have to stop drinking before it kills them and your relationship, too. 

Jesus loved the rich man.  So he told him that if he really wanted eternal life—not just endless life, but eternal life, that bountiful, all-encompassing, loving life in the constant companionship of God—then he had to quit his addiction.  Cold turkey.  He had to get rid of his stuff.

And that brings us back around to where we started.  Jesus loves me. This I know.  Jesus love you.  This I know, too.  And that means that Jesus will do whatever it takes to help us be healthy and whole—which, by the way, is the original meaning of salvation—to be made healthy and whole and swimming in the eternal stream of God’s love.

So work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  And remember, if you feel Jesus is asking you to do the impossible for your own good, it’s because he loves you.  And with God, all things are possible.

Surprise!

“We need transformed people today, and not just people with answers.” -Richard Rohr

When is the last time you were surprised by something you read in the Bible?  When is the last time you read something in the scriptures that astonished you and made you re-think your ideas about God or life or humanity?

Most of us fall into certain assumptions about the Bible somewhere along the way.  We think of it as a collection of rules or behavior modification or just advice on how to be good.  Or we think of it as an anachronistic collection of stories that may occasionally have some relevance but that doesn’t really have that much to do with our daily lives beyond being saved.  Most of us accept that it is somehow a tool for our spiritual growth and development, but we often don’t have a clear idea of how to use it that way.  

I remember attending a graduation dinner at a certain faith-based university years ago.  Meri and I were seated next to a bright-eyed young woman, one of the graduating students, who was accompanied by her parents.  She was graduating with a high GPA in her major, Christian Education, and she had earned a certificate that authorized her to teach Bible and faith classes in her  denomination.  Her parents were justifiably proud of her accomplishments and her dad said, “Tell the pastor what you told me earlier—about what Bible means, what it stands for.”  “Oh,” she said with a big smile, “it’s an acronym:  Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, B-I-B-L-E!”  “Isn’t that great!?” enthused her dad.  I smiled and said something politely encouraging, but inwardly I was dismayed.

I’ve heard that acronym numerous times since that evening, and I’ve felt the same sense of dismay every time I’ve heard it.   Invariably it has come up in circumstances where I didn’t feel free to say, “No, that’s a horrible acronym!  That’s a worse-than-useless way to describe the Bible!”  

Let me explain.  First and foremost, the focus of the Bible is not about Leaving Earth—unless you want to say Leaving It Better Than When We Arrived.  It’s true that there is a fair amount of material that concerns our salvation.  But salvation, at least as the scriptures understand it, is about being made well, whole, complete.  And yes, rescued, but that’s the most limited understanding of the word.  Plus, it’s clear in the Bible that God intends salvation for all of creation, not just you and me.  And yes, there are some instructions to encourage and help us as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” but those instructions are given so that we can all live more peaceful and healthy lives here on this earth, in the community of humanity, now.  The Bible is not about going to heaven.  It’s about how God has been working to bring heaven to earth.  

But there’s another big error in that acronym and it’s right there in the first word.  Basic.  We tend to hear “basic” as “simple.”  Some of the “instructions” seem simple at first glance, but that’s the problem.  When God does give an instruction, you’re supposed to do more than glance at it.  You’re supposed to figure out how you’re going to live it.  And living even the “simple” instructions can be more complicated than we tend to think…because we don’t think.

Take the Ten Commandments, the most “basic” instructions we’re given in the Bible.   “You shall have no other gods,” says God.  And that sounds simple enough until we start to really analyze our relationship with money or other things that are important to us. “Show me what you trust, what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god,” said Luther.  “You shall not commit adultery,” said God.  “If you look at someone with lust, you’re violating that one,” said Jesus.  “You shall not murder,” said God.  “If you’re carrying a grudge or hating someone, you’ve violating that one,” said Jesus.  And on it goes.  The “instructions” we are given may be basic in the sense that they set a baseline for us, but they’re anything but basic in terms of trying to live them. 

And that’s another problem with the acronym.  It reduces this amazing library of books and letters to a pocket guide—and one that’s pretty useless, at that.  There are whole sections of the Bible that are about how people have struggled to understand and live by the “basic” instructions God gave them.  There are sections full of songs and poems of praise or lament.  There are parables, short stories and fables.  There are histories.  There is theology—writers sharing what they had learned or come to understand about God.  There are hopes and prayers and visions.  There are heroes.  There are villains.

“This marvelous anthology of books and letters called the Bible is all for the sake of astonishment!” writes Richard Rohr in his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.  “It’s for divine transformation (theosis), not intellectual or ‘small-self’ coziness,” 

I invite you to start reading the Bible in a new way.  I invite you to forget what you think it says and let it speak to you as if you’re hearing or reading it for the first time.  I invite you to open yourself to the possibility of being astonished as you allow yourself to be led by the Spirit on a journey of discovery.  The Bible…whatever you think it is, it’s not that.  It’s more.  Much, much more.

People As Things

Mark 10:2-16 

Martin Luther defined sin as being “curved in upon the self.”  That’s a really good and useful definition.  It covers just about all the bases.  But a few years ago I read another terrific definition of sin, this one from my favorite author of fiction, the late Sir Terry Pratchett.  In his book Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax, the wise witch of the hill country, defines sin in her own acerbic way while talking to a young theology student named Mightily Oats:  

“…And that’s what your holy men discuss, is it?” asked Granny Weatherwax.

“Not usually. There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment on the nature of sin, for example,” answered Mightily Oats.

“And what do they think? Against it, are they?”

“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”

“Nope.”

“Pardon?”

“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people like things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”

“It’s a lot more complicated than that–“

“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.”

“Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes–“

“But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

Sin is when you treat people like things.

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him—treating him a bit like a thing—they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  It’s interesting that this the question they use to test him.  The easy answer, and one that probably wasn’t open to debate in their minds, is yes.  It is lawful.  It says so pretty clearly in Deuteronomy.  Chapter 24 verse 1.  

Jesus understands that they’re really asking something else, though.  What they really want is his opinion on when it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife.  What are the acceptable grounds for divorce?  

Oh, and pay attention to that language.  It’s all about a man divorcing his wife.  Not the other way around.

Deuteronomy does not specify that a man needs any particular reason to divorce his wife.  It simply says, “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.”

Deuteronomy seems to simply assume that divorce is going to happen and doesn’t offer any real commentary on it.  In Jesus’ time, though, there was a big debate going on between the followers of two very influential rabbis, the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, about what constituted just cause for divorce.  What kinds of things made it okay.  Hillel argued that, since Deuteronomy didn’t specify that a reason was needed except that she doesn’t please him, then anything she does that he finds objectionable—that’s the language in the statute—is acceptable grounds for the divorce.  It could be as simple as “she burned the bread” he argues.  Shammai and his followers, on the other hand, argued that divorce is only acceptable in the case of adultery.  

Jesus ties adultery to his answer, too, and at first glance, it looks like he’s siding with Shammai, but his response is more nuanced than that.  He’s actually refusing to get involved in their debate over the law itself.  Instead, he wants the Pharisees to see that just by arguing about this statute from Deuteronomy they are lending legitimacy to the already established practice of divorce instead of seeing it as a sad example of human brokenness in general, an example of men in particular being curved in upon themselves and treating women as things that they can take up or discard at will.  Jesus wants them to see that there is a huge problem built into the statute itself and that this law rests on assumptions that are hugely problematic.

“Moses gave you this law because you’re so hard-hearted,” said Jesus.  So right there at the beginning he is challenging them to look at why this law is even on their books.  It’s because the men are so hard-hearted.  They act as if it is their natural right to have control over the woman’s fate.  The very language of the statute seems to assume that.  It’s all about a man divorcing his wife.  

But Jesus reminds them that before there was this questionable law, there was the world as God had made it.  Both male and female were created in the image and likeness of the divine.  Male and female were equal.  That was God’s original vision and intent.  Jesus yanks them out of their debate over when and how it’s okay to destroy a relationship, and reminds them of the original intention of the relationship as it is defined in Genesis: “For this reason ‘a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

You may not catch it right away, but Jesus is actually taking on patriarchy here.  In her ground-breaking book In Memory of Her, Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza describes it this way:

Divorce is necessary because of the male’s hardness of heart, that is, because of men’s patriarchal mind-set and reality…However, Jesus insists, God did not intend patriarchy but created persons as male and female human beings.  It is not woman who is given into the power of man in order to continue “his” house and family line, but it is man who shall sever connections with his own patriarchal family and “the two persons shall become one sarx (body/flesh)”… The [Genesis] passage is best translated as “the two persons—man and woman—enter into a common human life and social relationship because they are created as equals.”[1]

Jesus is protesting the way that patriarchal privilege has so casually and easily driven a wedge into the unity and equality originally intended for men and women and for marriage. 

He is not intending to create an absolute prohibition of divorce.  He acknowledges that it is an unfortunate fact of life.  But he wants to level the playing field.  And he also wants to make sure that no one enters into divorce lightly or with unrealistic expectations.  

He makes it clear that those who remarry after divorcing will bring a certain amount of spiritual and emotional baggage to their new relationship whether they realize it or not. They will be “committing adultery” in the sense that they are no longer remaining faithful to the original relationship, and some part of their mind and heart will always know that.  

I don’t think Jesus is so much describing a continuous state of sin here as he is acknowledging the reality of the pain of broken relationships.  He applies this understanding to both men and women.  And it’s important to note that he doesn’t tell people to stay in relationships where they are being abused or broken or even simply neglected.  It’s important to remember, too, that Jesus is the one who can heal the brokenness, ease the pain and forgive the sin that every divorce brings with it.

Jesus is trying to make it clear to both the Pharisees and his disciples that, in God’s eyes, the central problem with their understanding of the divorce law in Deuteronomy is that the whole thing is based on men treating women as objects, and that even if you restore equality to the relationship and level the power dynamics, treating people as things will always drive a wedge into the relationship.

Having said what needed to be said about treating people as if they were disposable, Mark’s gospel now turns Jesus’ focus to another group of persons whom their culture tended to treat as objects.  Children.  Only this time it’s the disciples who are failing to see the basic humanity of these smaller persons.

Mark tells us, “People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.”  Jesus was indignant. “Let the little children come to me,” he said, “It’s people like these who make up the Kingdom of God!”  That was a huge thing to say in a world where children had no stature whatsoever.  But Jesus wasn’t finished.  “Listen.  Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

This is where a lot of commentators rhapsodize about the innocence of children.  I always wonder when I read those commentaries if the writer has any actual experience with real children.  So if Jesus isn’t referring to “the innocence of children” here, what does he mean when he says we need to receive the kingdom as a little child? 

One thing almost all children have is curiosity.  Richard Rohr calls it “a beginner’s mind of a curious child…what some would call ‘constantly renewed immediacy.”[2]  This is the state of mind which Rohr says makes it easier for us to enter into real spiritual growth.  This is the state of mind we need in order to not make assumptions that we know everything.  This is the state of mind that enables us to see everyone else and ourselves as children of God, and not as objects.  Things. 

When we are able to see each other as children of God, when we are able to receive the Kingdom of God as a present reality and immerse ourselves in it with a beginner’s mind, a constantly renewed sense of immediacy, when we stop treating people as things, then we will be able to begin healing ourselves and the world.  Then we will be taken up in the arms of Christ and blessed.  And by the power and presence of Christ within us, we will embrace and bless the world around us.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins; Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, p.143

[2] Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality; Richard Rohr, p. 8

To Make Life Less Difficult

Mark 9:38-50

On September 11, 2001, Emilio Martinez was anxious to get home from a business trip.  He boarded an early flight in Ohio, but the plane had barely got off the ground when the pilot came on the intercom to tell the passengers that there was a “security breach” and that their plane was being diverted immediately to Omaha.  

Emilio had an intuition that something very serious was happening—something that might make it very difficult for him and others to get home—so as soon as he got a cell signal, he called a car rental company and arranged to rent the biggest van they had.

When he deplaned, he heard the news about what was happening with the hijacked planes and the World Trade Center towers as he made his way quickly to pick up the van he had rented while still in the air.  He did the rental paperwork quickly, then parked the van close to the terminal and went back inside.  He tore a big piece of cardboard off of a discarded cardboard box then borrowed a Sharpie from a gate agent and made a sign that said “GOING TO DENVER.”  Even though everyone was nervous and scared at that point, people started approaching him to ask if he was really going to Denver.  “Yes,” he said.  “And I can take seven people with me.”

In no time, Emilio’s rented van was filled with seven strangers.  All of them nervous.  All of them scared.  But all of them wanting desperately to get home.  All eight of them jumped into the van and Emilio drove them home from Omaha to Denver.  Denver is a huge metropolitan area with lots of suburbs, but Emilio drove each and every one of his seven new friends to their front door.  When they tried to offer him money to help cover the rental of the van or pay for the gas, he refused.  With his simple act of generosity, Emilio Martinez became one of the unsung heroes of 9/11.

In George Eliot’s wonderful book Middlemarch, the heroine, Dorothea Brooke, asks the question, “What do we live for, if it’s not to make life less difficult for each other?”  If you take nothing else home with you today, I hope you take that.  I hope you let that question live with you.  What do we live for, if it’s not to make life less difficult for each other?

In the ninth chapter of Mark, there’s a moment when the disciples want Jesus to make life more difficult for someone.  The disciple John came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn’t in our group.”

Think about that for a minute.  Someone was freeing people from spiritual oppression or possession—in the name of Jesus, no less—and they tried to stop him.  Because…?  Because he was not part of their group.  In the eyes of the disciples he wasn’t properly authorized to use the name of Jesus, I guess.

Here’s how Jesus responded, as Eugene Peterson describes it in The Message: “Jesus wasn’t pleased. ‘Don’t stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down.  If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally.  Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.”[1]

That seems pretty clear, but Jesus has more to say.  He really wants them—and us—to get the point.  When it comes to helping people, as far as Jesus sees it, we’re all on the same side.  

But Jesus has another concern.  He’s worried that by butting in on the good work that the non-disciple was doing, his disciples might have done something to alienate him and all those people watching him from faith in Christ.  He’s worried that their bad example and cliquish attitude might turn people away.

“On the other hand,” he says—this is The Message again—“if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.” 

Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point here…and he’s just getting warmed up.  “If your hand or your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away. You’re better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. — And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away.  You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.”  

Now let’s be clear.  Jesus is not advocating that we maim ourselves in any way.  A lot of people are really troubled by this passage, and a lot of pastors hate to preach on it.  One pastor asked his adult Sunday School class to think about which Sunday would be good for inviting their friends to church and one woman said, “Any Sunday except pluck-your-eye-out Sunday.”

She has a point.  It’s a scary text and it could put people off.  But it’s important to remember that Jesus is using hyperbole here.  He uses these very graphic images to hammer home the point.  He knows his followers will remember what he’s telling them precisely because what he says is so shocking and the images are so graphic.  

But when you read past the hyperbole, you realize that he’s basically telling us, “Use some self-control, people!  Think before you act!  Think before you speak!  Especially if you identify as one of my followers!  If you bear the name of Christ, if you call yourself a Christian, think about how you represent Jesus.  Your words and actions can come back to haunt not just you, but all of us who bear the name of Christ.

How many times have you seen a news story about how some “Christians” have made life difficult for other people?  About a Christian-owned bake shop, say, that won’t make a wedding cake for a gay couple or about a prominent “Christian” making some kind of statement of hate or exclusion.  My heart just sinks every time I see a story like that.  I know that there will be people out there who will see that and it will turn them away from faith in Christ. 

Jesus wants us to know that we will answer for those kinds of things. 

Author Wendy Mass said, “Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  In The Message, Jesus says the same thing another way:  “Everyone’s going through a refining fire sooner or later  but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”

Preserve the peace.  Greet the world with an expansive and welcoming attitude—not one of exclusion.  Help people whenever and however you can.  Or at the very least, don’t be an obstruction when you see someone else helping people. 

After all, what do we live for, if it’s not to make life less difficult for each other?  Especially if we can do it in the name of Jesus.


[1] Mark 9:38-50 in The Message, a paraphrase translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson

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