Herod was angry and afraid. He had heard of this new king who had been born in Bethlehem, and he didn't like it one bit. This child, young as he was, was a threat to Herod's power and his fragile ego. And so he used the power at his disposal, and ordered that all boys under the age of two would be killed. Thankfully, an angel told Joseph in a dream that he and Mary must leave Bethlehem, the land of Joseph's ancestors, and flee to Egypt, where they could find safety.
But Mary and Joseph said, "No, that's irresponsible." So they stayed and indeed, their son Jesus was killed by a corrupt government.
No, wait, that's not right. They went. They left Joseph's homeland and fled to a nearby country, where they were confident the residents would have compassion and receive them into safety. It was a long and difficult journey, and though they feared, they also trusted. Finally, they arrived at the Egyptian border, and pled for refuge. The border agents approached Mary while she breastfed young Jesus, and ripped him from her breast, saying they were there illegally. No, no, not that. They told Joseph they were going to take the child for a bath, and Mary gratefully handed him over. They took Jesus and placed him in a cage with some other boys in an abandoned warehouse, before sending a terrified Mary and Joseph to jail. They should have known better than to come to the border and ask for refuge.
Jesus said, "I was a stranger and you did not welcome me... They answered, "Lord, when was it that we saw you a stranger and did not take care of you?" He answered them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me."
I have heard plenty of Christians claim Donald Trump and his administration are chosen and ordained by God. I have heard others lament that we are no longer "a Christian nation," and pray that we would be once again.
Well guess what?
Rejecting people coming to our borders seeking safety and asylum is decidedly not Christian. Christianity teaches to welcome the stranger, to serve the orphan, widow, and others who are weak and in need. This is a foundational belief of the Judeo-Christian faith, which often cites the fact that "you were once a stranger in a strange land." In that way, it's very American - we are a land of (mostly) immigrants, so we really ought to have compassion on immigrants. It's biblical and patriotic.
Tearing children away from their parents and putting them in cages is decidedly not Christian. The gospel is a message of healing and life. This sort of trauma and separation can cause permanent damage to young children's brains, the sort of damage that leads to future violence. Furthermore, if we are talking about caring for the weak and vulnerable and oppressed (which Jesus frequently does, as does the Old Testament), then who better fits the bill than children fleeing danger in their homeland?
And (putting aside for a moment that this policy of separating children from parents is new, not a previously standing law), following the letter of the law is also not Christian. Not saying to ignore the law, but rather, that following the spirit of the law is more faithful than following the letter of the law. Remember all those tiffs Jesus got in with the Pharisees? About things like, not healing on the sabbath? Jesus always placed love and compassion for those in need over following the letter of the law, and the reason is this: the purpose of the law is to guide us in our efforts to love and care for our neighbor. Love of neighbor is the fulfillment of the law. If a law does not encourage us to love God or our neighbor, then it is not of God.
And there is nothing, nothing loving about tearing children away from their parents at the border. Full stop.
Monday, June 18, 2018
June 17, 2018
Last week we talked about how Mark’s Gospel is apocalyptic – it shows us that dominant powers are not ultimate powers, but rather, that the power of God will ultimately dominate over everything. We talked about how that word “apocalypse” means to uncover, to pull back the current reality to reveal to us a different way that is of God, a way that Jesus will today call “the kingdom of God.” For Mark, this applies especially to his readers’ reality that Roman domination seems to be winning, but Jesus is saying, “No, they are not the winners. God’s kingdom will ultimately win.”
In today’s reading from Mark, Jesus describes what that kingdom will look like, and he uses parables to do it. Anyone know what a parable is? It’s more than a story with a lesson, more than an analogy or allegory. It’s a story that places side-by-side two unrelated things to challenge our expectations and make us think more deeply about things we thought we knew. As one preacher writes, “Because [parables] call into question accepted ‘truths,’ they are almost always a bit subversive, challenging and even goading us to consider other possibilities in light of God’s promises.” So our first reading today presents an image of God’s kingdom that makes sense to us – majestic cedar trees – but the parables Jesus tells liken the kingdom of God to an ordinary seed with an ordinary crop, which we would not expect.
I also want to say a little something about that phrase, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom sounds like a place, right? In fact, what place do you usually think of? [Heaven.] But the Greek word there is more dynamic. It refers to something active, more like a reign or rule, not a static place. So, the kingdom of God is not a location, but a reality, in which God is the ruler, rather than earthly powers. And so, when we act as God would have us do, and treat people with the love of God, we are living in God’s reign or rule. Lutherans like to talk about the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” – it hasn’t fully come to be (we know this because of how much pain still exists in the world), but already we can see glimpses of it, when we see people living according to God’s rule. As we will see in our parables, this reign is not something we can bring about nor prevent, but we can participate in it, live in that “already,” and in that participation, we just might make God’s reign more visible. Let’s see what we can learn.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Well, I’ll go ahead and say it: the parable of the growing seed is pretty boring. I mean look at it: “A sower plants a seed, does nothing, and it grows. Then he harvests it.” What could possibly be more ordinary? What could something so mundane possibly have to reveal to us about the mysterious and longed for kingdom of God?
And then he follows it with this mustard seed parable, which is again, kind of boring. Mustard bushes are not the majestic cedars of Lebanon. They are ordinary, and they are invasive, by no means unique. They are useful, yes, with many medicinal qualities, but they are not very interesting. Another mundane parable.
Of course, this is the beauty of Jesus’ parables. He takes entirely ordinary things, things we can understand because we have experience with them, and uses them to point us toward the incredible work of God, showing us the power that even mundane things have to reveal God to us.
So what are these ordinary things showing us about living as citizens in the kingdom of God? How is the living Word of God speaking to this time and place through this parable? And, an important question for Mark, how might the earthly kingdom in which we live (the one Mark is trying to apocalyptically pull away) look different from the reign of God (the new kind of reality that we find)?
Let’s start with that last question, by considering Mark’s context. The earthly kingdom in which they were living was one of oppression and persecution, in which fear and despair was their daily diet, in which Rome was the dominant power, and they abused that power. And so into that context, Jesus says to them, “I know you long for something different, for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom to tear down all that causes your anguish. But the kingdom of God isn’t like a military power, come to overthrow. No, the kingdom of God is like this: like a seed that is planted and grows quietly, even without you realizing. It is growing in just the way God intended for it to grow, and nothing you do can make it grow any faster, nor any slower. But it is growing, trust me! And one day it will sprout – you’ll see just the tips of green come up from the dirt. You’ll see life there that wasn’t there the day before. It will keep growing, bigger and stronger. And this seed, that little seed that you didn’t even see growing all that time, suddenly it will bear fruit! And then you will know that it is time for the harvest, the time when all of God’s plans will become clear to you.”
What a word of hope that is! In Mark’s time, people were anxious for such a word of hope, that God’s kingdom could persist even through the abusive power and oppression they were witnessing. They needed to hear that God’s kingdom could not be stifled by human nature or error, nor could it be hastened, but rather, that it would come in the way and time that God chooses. They needed to hear that trusting God would not be in vain.
But Jesus doesn’t stop at that. He goes on then to describe what that kingdom, that different kind of rule is like: “Do you want to know more about the nature of the kingdom of God?” he asks. “Here’s how I would describe it. It’s like a mustard seed. Yeah, that tiny little seed that seems like nothing compared to all the trials and tribulations of this world. Yet, it grows and grows and becomes a great big shrub. I know, I know, the mustard bush may not be the most impressive bush to look at, but look at what it has to offer: healing! And beyond that, shelter and safety for the animals. Yes, even the birds, who I know can be pests – they will be welcomed into the big branches of the kingdom of God. They will be safe there from the dangers of the world. They will raise their families there, and make a home in that kingdom. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, you see – it is a place that offers love, care, and welcome even for those creatures you may not think you want around. Perhaps most importantly – it cannot be stopped. My friends, the kingdom of God, this place of love and welcome, cannot be tamed. It can and will spread, and take over everything, welcoming the birds into its branches, and living under a rule of neighbor love. Rome cannot and will not do that for you. But, that tenacity and care is what you can expect from the kingdom of God.”
What an important and life-giving understanding of this parable, for their time and for ours. It offers us hope, and a lifeline out of despair, when we find ourselves living in a world in which governments disregard God’s rule of love, turn away from people in need, cause trauma rather than seek healing, and do all of this by falsely using God’s word to support it. The seed growing in secret promises that our faults and mistakes and ignorance cannot stop the kingdom of God from coming about – it will come regardless, not because of what we do or don’t do, but because of who God is. The mustard seed tells us that God cannot be beat, that God’s kingdom will always win over any human efforts to overpower it.
And while this doesn’t give us a particular job to do – planting seeds or whatever – it does inspire us to become a part of it. That is where faith comes in. We aspire to be a part of this growing kingdom, not because we must in order to be saved, but rather, because we already are, because we are so filled with faith and trust in God that we can’t NOT become a part of it. Participating in God’s kingdom springs out of our faith; it is a reflection of our true faith. Our faith in God’s promises compels us to be God’s actors and workers in this world, sharing the good news of God’s love by reaching out to the poor, working for justice for the oppressed, listening to the voices of those on the margins and borders, seeking healing for all the various forms of brokenness in this world, or even standing up against those worldly kingdoms that would try to stifle God’s work, and rule by anything other than love of neighbor.
When we do those things, we are already living in God’s kingdom, even as we still long for it to come to completion.
These kingdom parables show us that the death we experience in this world does not win. God always wins. Love and grace and justice always win. Trust in God… and then, compelled by faith, let’s make like a mustard bush, and get out there to spread this kingdom.
Let us pray… Resilient, invasive, and loving God, thank you that your kingdom comes no matter what we do or don’t do. Inspire us by your promises, that we would be compelled to actively participate in your kingdom, on earth as in heaven, by loving and caring for our neighbor as we would do for Christ himself. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Monday, June 11, 2018
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35
Last week when we began working through Mark, I talked about how Mark’s Gospel is a little rough around the edges because Mark is in such a great hurry to get this story out. This week I want to expand a bit on that. Part of his rush was that the world was in turmoil. Mark was writing right as the Great Revolt was coming to a close – the Jewish people had revolted against the oppressive Roman Empire. This Revolt culminated with the destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple, which is right when Mark is writing. Because of his particular context, Mark has a very apocalyptic feel to it.
Now, usually when we say “apocalypse,” we think, “end of the world,” or “final judgment.” But the original meaning of that word, apocalypse, was, a big hope-filled idea that dominant powers are not ultimate powers: the message is, when empires fall and tyrants fade, God is still around. The word actually means a sort of pulling away of the known, to reveal what’s underneath. [See this video with Nadia Bolz Weber about this understanding of apocalypse.]
And so when I say Mark is apocalyptic, I mean that Mark shows us how Jesus is pulling back the reality of the empires and oppressive systems in which we find ourselves, and showing us what is underneath, showing us that there is another way. For the first century Christians, this was good news, to hear that the bad guys wouldn’t win, that the terrifying situation in which they found themselves was not the final word. But for the powers that be, it was not such good news – and that is why they push against Jesus’ message, dismissing it and undermining it however they can.
In our first story today, we will hear about how from the beginning of time, people have been quick to point fingers and cast blame elsewhere, and about how this behavior damages even our most important relationships. In our Gospel reading, we will see how quick we are to dismiss that which would challenge our beliefs, that would dare pull back what we have know to reveal something different. We see this as Jesus’ adversaries are so put off by this that they say he is possessed by the devil himself. Let’s see how these stories can guide our lives of faith.
|Adam and Eve hide from God|
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
From the beginning of time, humans have pointed fingers, dismissed each other’s pain, and been divided. Since the very first humans, we have hidden ourselves from one another and from God, hoping that no one else will have to see our insecurities, that if we put up a strong front and deflect any blame, then we can continue to hold onto our beliefs, no matter how misguided.
It’s no wonder division has been a mark of human society from society’s very inception.
I have always loved this scene in Genesis, where the insecure Adam and Eve hide themselves from God, and as soon as they are called out on their shenanigans they point fingers anywhere else to keep themselves safe. I just see so much of my own experience in this story. Because don’t we all want to be safe? Physically safe, sure, but I mean, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually safe. We don’t want our deeply held beliefs to be challenged, we don’t want to admit that someone else could be right, and we definitely don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially not in front of anyone else. And so we blame, blame, blame, even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, and cast people’s attention anywhere else to discredit the thing that might accuse us.
The behavior is very obvious in the Adam and Eve story. But it’s pretty clear in our story from Mark, too. Jesus has been pretty busy, healing a lot of people, casting out demons, and most recently, appointing his twelve disciples. Now they are back to business, having headed to Jesus’ hometown. And people are watching. And they are getting nervous, because what Jesus is saying and doing these days is an affront to the powers that be, and does not jibe with their understanding of God. As I said in the introduction, Jesus’ message is an apocalyptic one, pulling back the cover and revealing the truth about how Roman rule is not ultimate rule, and that in fact God’s power is not revealed in domination, but rather in reaching out to and serving those on the fringes of society. They had expected the Messiah to be a military power, to overthrow the government by force, but here is this carpenter, reaching out to the fringes!
In response to this counter-cultural message, what do the religious authorities do? Do they thank him very much for directing their attention back to the God they love? No… Do they say, “Tell us more about that. It’s intriguing, and we realize we might be missing something in our understanding of the world.” No.... They do just as Adam and Eve did and more: they hide from the truth and instead offer false information. “He’s crazy,” they say. “He’s lost his mind. He’s clearly possessed by the devil.” Discredit, dismiss, do whatever you need to do in order to protect your understanding of the world, no matter how misguided it may be, from being challenged.
Jesus’ response to this is a very logical one: “a house divided cannot stand,” he says. Basically, how could he be using the spirit of Satan to cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against himself? It doesn’t make sense.
And yet, the irony in his response is that working against ourselves is exactly what we humans do all the time. We choose what does not bring life. We let the voice of the devil convince us we are unlovable, even though we know ours is a God of love. We drive wedges between ourselves and other children of God by casting blame on one another, labeling and dismissing each other, and clinging to false truths. When we feel the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing us in a way that scares us, or that requires us to let go of a belief that does not bring life but does provide us a sense of safety, we shut it down, and convince ourselves that we know better than the Spirit.
I keep going back to Mark as apocalyptic, about how Jesus’ ways and words pull back what we thought was true, and, if we are humble enough to see it, reveal to us a different way that is of God. What is that different way?
Our keynote speaker last week at Synod Assembly was Ruben Duran, who works out of the Churchwide office with new congregations throughout the ELCA. In his address, he talked about being “detectives of divinity” – willing to really look for God not only in our congregation, but out in the public arena. Sometimes this is pretty easy – whenever we see good happening, we assume God must be there! Where being detectives of divinity gets a lot harder is in those Adam and Eve moments, those Mark moments, when we are suddenly confronted with the possibility that everything we previously held true might in fact be wrong, or at least not completely right, and we are immediately inclined to blame, point fingers, name-call, discredit, dismiss, and continue to hold onto whatever view it is that makes us feel safe.
These are very human defense mechanisms. They are “safe.” But they are not life. And that, in the end, is what our faith is based on: it is a story that is rooted in death but does not stay there. The story of our faith is one in which the government put to death a man who challenged what they held dear, thinking that this would put him out of sight and mind, that it would silence this opposing and resistant power, that it would keep safe their beliefs and way of life. But it didn’t work. Instead, Jesus rose from the dead and showed the world once and for all that trying to stifle God’s Word of life would get us nowhere, that no human actions can stop God from being a God of life, a God of new life that emerges out of death. We can’t stop it!
So yes, recognizing we are wrong can feel very much like a death – it is death to something we held dear. It is a death I have experienced many times in my life! But what if instead of leaning into the death by jumping to the human tendencies to blame, discredit, and dismiss, what if we looked rather to the possibility of new life, by taking a moment to ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? What is God pulling back to reveal to me in this? What belief of mine is being threatened, and why do I insist on holding to it even more tightly, even at the expense of my relationships? Where is life trying to emerge here?”
If we did this, I wonder what would happen to our relationships with those from whom we feel divided? Because Jesus is right – a house divided cannot stand. Neither can a church divided, or a country divided, or a family divided. The breach must be healed. So let us seek to be “detectives of divinity,” brothers and sisters, finding God in one another. Let us, when we feel challenged, seek to find how God is working there, not to shame us, but to bring about new life. If we did that, we might find we are able to overcome division. We might even find ourselves to be a new sort of family, united by our shared desire to do the will of God
I think I’m willing to take the risk – even if someone thinks I’m out of my mind for it! Are you willing to take that risk with me?
Let us pray… Uniting God, we are prone to discredit and dismiss people and ideas that challenge our beliefs. Yet we also know you are at work in everything, taking what feels like a death, and turning it into life. Help us to be detectives of divinity, always searching for the ways you are bringing about new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
June 3, 2018
Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:26--3:6
Today we begin eight weeks working our way through the Gospel of Mark, so I wanted to give you a little overview of that Gospel. I’ll tell you more about some specific themes as we encounter them, but today we’ll start with a couple general things.
First, Mark’s Gospel is down-and-dirty. It is super fast-paced and has a sort of frenetic energy about it, like he’s just so excited to get this story out he can’t be bothered with things like smooth transitions or having all the theological pieces in place. Compare that to John, who is so diligent about how things fit together, and these long, beautiful, even poetic theological discourses – nope, not Mark. Mark’s Gospel is marked by rough edges, ineloquent transitions, and the use of the word “immediately,” which appears dozens of times. It is raw and energetic, enthusiastic and exciting.
Why is Mark so urgent and excited? It has to do with his context. His is the earliest Gospel to be written, right around the year 70. The first generation of Christians, those who knew Jesus, has begun to die off, and there is a need now to write down this story. In addition, the world is in turmoil, with wars and threats and danger round every corner. Christianity is about 40 years old, and they have been waiting for what they thought was Jesus’ imminent return – but after 40 years he still hasn’t come, so surely all this turmoil means he is coming soon! So Mark is rushing to get this story out just as quickly as he can, to share this amazing good news with as many people as possible. Although all the resulting rough edges can be jarring and frustrating for a casual reader, they also provide ample opportunity for us to read ourselves into the story – and that is just what Mark intends for us to do: to see ourselves as one of the disciples, on this journey with Jesus.
Now, the story we hear today comes early in Jesus’ ministry, but Jesus has already begun to make a name for himself. By this point he has already performed many healings and people seek him out for help. But he’s also managed to upset a lot of people, and so he is being watched. After Jesus appears today to violate the Sabbath – twice – some of those people are so upset that they already begin to plot against him, and it’s only chapter 3!
But that question – about whether Jesus does, in fact, violate the Sabbath – is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. And so first we will hear what, in fact, the law says about the Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is from the 10 Commandments, and it is the explanation of why we are to keep the Sabbath. Then in the two stories in Mark, we see Jesus living out this law in a way that the keepers and interpreters of the law, the Pharisees, did not approve. Yet Jesus teaches us something very important about the place of Sabbath-keeping as people of faith. Let’s listen.
|Attribution: Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing|
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” It’s an important story for the Israelites: the story of how God’s people were slaves, brutally treated with no rest, and God sent Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and lead them all out, through the Red Sea, and into freedom. It’s no surprise that it holds such an important place in Jewish and also Christian faith. It is a story that shows us that our God is a God who wants us to be free, who hates slavery. Our God is a liberating God! Our God wants us to have life, and to be captive to nothing and no one – not a king, not a situation, not our sin – and will go to great lengths to show us that.
Christians, of course, are all about the resurrection story, as we should be, and that is also a story about freedom, because on the cross, Jesus frees us from sins. But there is something so earthy and cool about that Exodus story, isn’t there? To literally march out of slavery, through a huge body of water as if being washed of all that used to bind them (just like a baptism, right?), even as that which would hold them captive still chases after them, and then for that same body of water to drown all the captors! Come on, it’s a great story!
It’s no wonder that God makes a whole commandment to help God’s people remember it. “Remember that you were slaves,” God says, “And now, because of me, you are not. So one day each week, don’t do any work, alright? And don’t make anyone else do any work either!” It’s as if God is saying, “I went to pretty great lengths to make sure you would be free from slavery, so don’t go and make yourselves into slaves by working all the time!”
You see, it is truly a grace-filled commandment, an insistence that we remember all that God has done for us, that ours is a God of freedom. This commandment is a gift to us. As Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, so don’t get confused and think that humankind was made to be anything but free on the Sabbath. Just take a day, one day, to remember that God wants for you to be free and to have life.
And yet, we do a pretty darn good job of breaking that commandment, don’t we? Oh, maybe you think, “Well I go to church, I pray, I’m doing fine!” But to think of the Sabbath only as “going to church” is a narrow understanding of it. While going to church is a great way to remember the Sabbath, it is so much bigger than that! To truly honor the Sabbath, is to celebrate our freedom, our life, and also to help others find that same freedom and life.
That’s what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading today. You see, the Pharisees have that narrow understanding of Sabbath. They stop at “you mustn’t work” and forget about why we mustn’t work – that is, so that we might celebrate our liberated life, and help others do the same. When Jesus sees a man with a withered hand, he sees someone who is unable truly to celebrate his freedom. He cannot work, he cannot participate in his community or support his family, and because of this, his culture sees him as less-than, as an unimportant, non-contributing member of society. When Jesus heals his withered hand, it is not so much about the hand. It is about him being restored socially, restored to wholeness and dignity.
In other words, the man receives life and liberation. It’s exactly the sort of “remembering the Sabbath” that glorifies God.
But I think we sometimes struggle with this just as much as the Pharisees… because we all find ourselves captive to something. Sometimes it is something physical, like an illness, or injury, or just the natural consequences of growing old. But I’m thinking more about the more spiritual captivities in which we find ourselves: the ones whose chains are made of our guilt, or doubt, or resentment, or anger, the ones whose shackles are an unwillingness to forgive, whose iron bars are the belief that we are somehow not worthy of God’s love and grace. Those are the captivities to which I think we are all prone to find ourselves. These feelings, they hold us back from fully celebrating the life we have been given in Jesus Christ, and the liberation that God wants for us.
We know that God wants freedom for us – if the Exodus event weren’t enough, we have the fact that God came to earth to dwell among us, then brought all of our sin with him to the cross, dying, and rising again so that we wouldn’t have to fear death and the devil. If God really wanted us to continue living in the captivity of our fears, guilt, anger, etc. then why would God go to such great lengths to give us otherwise, to show us another way?
God dearly wants us to remember the Sabbath, to remember that we were slaves, but no longer are because of the saving work of our almighty God – the God who led the Israelites across the Red Sea, and the God who died on a cross and rose again.
And that, actually, is why coming to worship is a great way to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Because when we gather here, we tell this story. We remember it together, with and for one another. We hear of God’s grace and unlimited love for us, love not because we are good, but because God is. And then, as Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, he says to us, “Come forward.” Come forward and receive this life-giving meal, this remembrance of God’s story and work. “Stretch out your hand,” he says, and receive this bread of life and wine of salvation. And in receiving this grace, we, the men and women with the withered souls, are restored.
Remember the Sabbath, brothers and sisters. Remember that you are free. Remember that no chains in this world are more powerful than God’s ability to break them. Remember that nothing you could say or do would put you out of the reach of God’s love and grace. Let us live this story, and seek to find ourselves in it.
Let us pray… Lord of the Sabbath, free us from all that would hold us back. Help us to remember to give thanks, on the Sabbath and every day, that you are a God who liberates us from sin and death. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.