Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

Lent I - Endings and Beginnings
Back to chapter 1 on this the first Sunday in Lent.  We have heard this same text now probably 4 or 5 times since the 1st Sunday in Advent.  But each time there is something new, something unique that emerges from the text.  I do believe, however, that this is the last time we will encounter this particular text in year B of the lectionary.  Finally, in Lent we will move into the remainder of the Gospel, because now that we are on the road to Jerusalem; the road to the crucifixion. Jesus’ ministry has now begun.  It has been a difficult beginning in many ways.  The pace is so fast in this Gospel that it is easy to read past some many important details.  And on this 1st Sunday in Lent the focus is on the details that are contained in verses 14 and 15:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to the Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom has come near; repent and believe in the Good News.
Now, I have made the point throughout the season of Epiphany that these two verses are a catapult for everything that follows.  Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom come into our midst is the Good News!  God has entered into our world and reaches out to us in Jesus!  But this Good News is easy to misinterpret and so Jesus has consistently tried to get his disciples to just watch and learn.  So as the catapult of Jesus’ ministry it is easy to see how these verses represent the beginning of Jesus ministry.  But this is a dark beginning; a difficult beginning.  Look at the context in the first 5 words – the part we usually pass over and don’t consider - Jesus’ ministry began AFTER John’s arrest. 
John is the voice in the wilderness, the one who prepares to the way for Jesus.  But Jesus remains in the shadows until John is removed physically from the scene.  And we know the rest of the story: John is arrested and is ultimately beheaded during a very violent and perverse banquet as entertainment for the princess Salomé by Herod Antipas and his wife Herodias.  And not only that, but Jesus has also just completed his own wilderness experience.  After being driven into the wilderness by the dove that represents the Holy Spirit, we learn that Jesus is tested by Satan and is with the wild beasts.  This is a time of struggle and of suffering for Jesus.  We should not dismiss this because we know that Jesus is God’s Son.  We must always remember that Jesus is also fully human, and that being in the wilderness (especially the desert wilderness of Judah) is very, very difficult.
Suffering, loneliness, testing, hate, violence – these are some words which describe this beginning for Jesus.  Sometimes I think we can too easily think of the Gospel story as being a kind of special, wonderful story in a far off removed time that can seem so remote to us.  Jesus is sinless, we believe; Jesus is God’s Son! So that must mean that he wasn’t phased by any of this, right?  No! I don’t believe that.  Jesus was fully human and lived as human life in a very volatile place during a very conflicted time of history.  Jesus suffered terribly; Jesus was very lonely; Jesus was truly tested and had to confront hate and evil and violence constantly.  Just like us.  We too must contend with these powerful forces.  They are a part of life.  And that is the point.  Sometimes we can feel so alone, so abandoned when we struggle if we think that we are not measuring up.  If we think that Jesus is too good, then we can often feel inadequate.  But Jesus’ life is one of brokenness and struggle and suffering – just like us and because of that he is joined with us in our struggles. 
So, what are you experiencing - joy, sorrow, loss, loneliness, struggle, grief, confidence, discouragement? Are you feeling inadequate?  Are you feeling like you don’t measure up to what God expects?  Or are you feeling a combination of all of the above perhaps?  This is the human condition.  We all have these experiences and they can sometimes all come at the same time.  The Good News is that Jesus has been there.  Jesus has shared in all of the experiences we have and is there with us in the midst of whatever challenges we face.  As we face various endings and new beginnings – Jesus is there.  As we contend with the darkness Jesus is there, bearing the light of God’s love and grace.
One last image – another story of endings and beginnings: the Old Testament lesson for this Lent I is the story of how God sealed the covenant with Noah after the flood by sending a rainbow.  Now we have probably all seen a rainbow and from ancient times it was believed to be a bow, like an archer’s bow.  However, modern science has given us a new perspective.  It isn’t actually a bow at all. Rainbows are actually circles.  They appear to be arches (or half-circles) because their bottom half is cut off by the ground.  If you want to see them in their circular glory you need to see them from high above the ground.  God placed the rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant, as a sign of God’s love and commitment to God’s beloved children.  Perhaps we should think of that rainbow then as the arms of God clasped together in an embrace; the arms of God embracing the beloved creation; embracing God’s beloved people; embracing you and me and filling the darkness of our human experience with color and light.  Life will continue to be a struggle with endings and beginnings – but the light of God and the love shown forth through Jesus will always be there to illumine our darkness and to heal our brokenness.
A video of this sermon can be found at - click on the "media" tab and open the "media player."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pray then in this way - Reflections on the Lord's Prayer

Pray Then in This Way
Beginning in Lent we will begin our 40-day pilgrimage with a focus on the Lord’s Prayer.  This wonderful prayer is one which is familiar to all Christians and which has been a regular part of Christian worship since the early church.  It is so familiar that it runs the danger of becoming too familiar.  In other words, it is easy for something like this beautiful prayer which we recite over and over to become so familiar that it looses it’s edge and bite.  For this prayer has an edge.  Though it is based on the Psalm tradition of the Old Testament it nevertheless is, in many ways, a very radical prayer that lifts up God’s unexpected priority for God’s children and calls for a equally radical response from those who prayer this prayer.
The first issue which this prayer lifts up, however, is that this prayer places prayer itself at the center of Christian life and discipleship. And it does provide a model for how we might structure our own prayers.  The prayer is in two parts with an introduction and a closing doxology:
Introduction: Our Father in Heaven…
Part I – Acknowledging God:
           1. Hallowed (Holy) be your name;
           2. Your Kingdom come;
           3. Your will be done, on earth as in heaven;
Part II – Petitions for God’s involvement in human life:
           4. Give us today our daily bread;
           5. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us;
           6. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
Closing Doxology: For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are yours, now
and forever.  Amen.

The prayer that Jesus sets out is a two-part prayer that begins with acknowledging the Jewish tradition of respecting the sacred name of God, but at the same time is very personal.  The Greek for Father is actually the familiar term Abba that should be translated more accurately as Daddy or Papa.  It is an intimate and familiar word.  This is important because too often we think of God as remote and far away; or we think of God as an angry judge ready to condemn and turn his back on us if we don’t measure up.  No, our Father in heaven is our Daddy, Papa who loves us unconditionally (think of the Father in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” Luke 15).  I would also add that Jesus’ use of the male familiar term does not assign a gender to God.  Jesus related to God as father.  The God includes both father and mother; male and female.  And if the male familiar term Father, Daddy, Papa does not work for you then it would be completely consistent with this prayer to substitute the female words Mother, Mommy, Mama.  The prayer is, itself, exceptionally inclusive and affirming.

This then brings us to the first part, the petitions that acknowledge who we understand God to be.  And they build on each other.  God is the God whose very name is Holy and we pray that we would be always aware of God’s holy name so that we would not bring dishonor or blasphemy upon God’s name.  This happens a lot.  For whenever we attach God’s name to our own particular cause or viewpoint or prejudice we are dishonoring God’s name.  For the God whose name is Holy is also the God who brings the Kingdom into our midst, and we then are citizens of this Kingdom of God.  And the will of God that will be accomplished in heaven and on earth are none other than the priorities of the Kingdom itself.

And what are the priorities of the Kingdom?  That takes us to part two and first and foremost: That people are cared for and fed.  That hunger is eradicated. There is no excuse for Christians to ignore the issues of hunger in our world.  WE spend lots of money and emotional energy fighting for all kinds of superficial “religious” issues, but consistently too many Christians ignore the one issue that was priority number one for Jesus himself: Hunger.  Then we pray for forgiveness for ourselves, our communities and by so doing we ask for insight, grace and love to be able to reach out to others with care and forgiveness.  Lastly part two ends with an acknowledgement of the reality of evil and asks for God’s deliverance.  Finally we close the prayer with a doxology that was added by the early church in the 3rd century.

This prayer should make us uncomfortable.  This prayer should challenge us.  It is too easy for Christians to become complacent and self-centered.  This prayer forces us to look beyond our own self-interest and the pet issues that are dear to us and to see that we are called to a much bigger calling.  Hunger on the other side of the world IS our issue. This prayer condemns all suffering, injustice, hate, and arrogance.  In this prayer we are called to commit ourselves to the vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus represents.  May we take this opportunity to reassess our values and our way of living our discipleship this Lent as we travel towards the cross of Jesus, accompanied by the Lord’s Prayer.  Amen.
The sermon series - which began with my sermon on Ash Wednesday on "Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be your name" will be posted in the media section of the Wartburg Parish website:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – Mark 9:2-9 – The Feast of the Transfiguration

Read the Gospel text here: Mark 9:2-10

“Listening to Jesus”
We have been focused on the Gospel of Mark since the first Sunday in Advent and for the most part our lessons have come from Chapter 1 (pew bibles NT pg. 27).  In fact, next week (Lent I) we will actually return again one more time to chapter 1.  But this week we have made a jump to chapter 9 (pg. 34) that is the very center of the Gospel of Mark.  And since it is at the very center it is very important to our understanding of this Gospel.  So what has happened in chapters 2 through 8?  Well, remember in 1:14-15 we have a key verse which tells us that everything that follows is a proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God come into our midst.  We have also come to understand in chapter 1 that this is more than words; in fact the Kingdom is most represented by what Jesus does!  And what does Jesus do?  Jesus calls and commissions disciples; Jesus confronts unclean spirits and casts them out; Jesus heals the sick, the paralytic, the blind and restores them to life; Jesus even raises the dead daughter of Jairus (chpt. 5 – pg. 30).  Not only that but Jesus stills the storm, teaches in parables, walks on water feeds the crowds and has deepening serious conflicts with the authorities.  And through it all the disciples are dazzled.  All they are seeing is glory and wonder.  Even when Jesus predicts his death and resurrection (8:31ff – pg. 34) they totally miss it.  They see only power and glory.
So it should not be surprising that when Jesus takes his 4 closest disciples up the mountain where he is going to pray and be transfigured, his disciples would again miss the point and see only glory and power.  But in the midst of this event a voice (the same voice that spoke at the Baptism in chapter 1) actually addresses the disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to Him!”  Now it seems that the disciples are guilty of hearing what they want to hear and seeing what they want to see (like us, perhaps?)  It is obvious that they hear the first part of this proclamation – the part about Jesus being the Beloved Son.  They already figured that out right?  Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah!  Glory, Halleluiah! But, it is clear that they have also completely missed the “Listen” part.  So Jesus calls the boys together and gives them an instruction: Don’t say anything to anyone about what you have seen and heard!  I can just imagine the disciples being totally upset and confused.  “Why?  This was so exciting.  This confirmed everything we had thought about Jesus and now we have to keep quiet about it?!?!”
“Yes you do!” says Jesus.  First, let’s ask what is it in particular that the disciples are told to listen to?  Right before this story (8:31ff) Jesus had told his disciples about how he would be going to be rejected and would suffer and be crucified and then on the third day rise, and how that in order to truly be one of His disciples they also need to take up the cross and follow.  Well, the disciples apparently didn’t remember that part.  They weren’t listening, I suppose.  So what is the voice calling on the disciples to hear?  The word about the cross!
2nd – What does it mean that Jesus is God’s Son?  The phrase is actually not that common in Mark.  Jesus never uses those words to describe himself.  The Gospel writer uses the phrase in the very beginning of the Gospel, the evil spirits recognize Jesus as God’s Son and the voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as God’s son.  The disciples have suspicions, but they never voice them.  Only at the very end of the Gospel does a human character actually recognize and verbalize that Jesus is God’s Son: The Centurion standing at the foot of the cross in 15:39!  It is not a disciple, it is not one of the women, it is not even a Judean – it is one of the Jesus’ executioners!  Only when seen on the cross is it possible to recognize that Jesus is God’s Son!  And the Centurion is the only one who hasn’t run away by that time!
Lastly, the verb form for the word “Listen” is imperative.  This is important because it requires a response.  “Listen to him!”  This means it needs to make a difference, it needs to be reflected in how you live your life, how you relate to others and how you live out your calling to take up the cross and follow.  “Listen” in the imperative means – hear, see and act!  And this is the word to us as well: “Listen to Jesus!”  See the cross! And what difference does this cross make in your life?  Following Jesus is not about glory and power – it is not about being good and right – it is not about being the select holy ones.  It is all about service – picking up the cross and following.  It is all about receiving the gift of God’s love that comes to us through the cross and then allowing this gift to flow through us to a hurting, hungry and suffering world!  Are you listening!
If you would like to listen to this sermon - the audio is posted on the site under "media."

Friday, February 3, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel – St. Mark 1:29-39

Read the text of the Gospel here: St. Mark 1:29-39

A Kingdom Story
… Jesus came to the Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Last week I noted that everything that follows in the Gospel of Mark emerges from these verses (which themselves are a restatement of the heading which appears in verse 1).  After Jesus continues with his ministry we begin to get glimpses of what it means that the Kingdom of God has come into the world in Jesus.  Last week our Gospel text showed the power of the Holy Spirit, working in Jesus, confronting the unclean spirits of our world and overcoming them.  In this mini-resurrection story we see that in Jesus the Holy Spirit has the power and authority to confront and defeat the unclean spirits of this world that work against us and to restore us, give us back our lives.  But this is only a small glimpse of the picture of the Kingdom.
And there is so much room for misunderstanding. Kingdoms come and Kingdoms go.  One great power defeats another promising change and a better life.  But as soon as the dust clears it turns out that the promise was a false one.  One great Kingdom is no different from the next for the common people on the ground.  People are still hungry, over-worked, over-taxed, afraid and oppressed.  What makes the promise of the Kingdom of God any different than all the great promises that have been held out before?  For their part, the disciples don’t seem to understand that there is any difference.  They seem to be positioning themselves for important positions in the new government led by Jesus.  But Jesus for his part, tries to contain all of this talk.  He orders the disciples and the spirits and anyone else who ventures as guess to BE QUIET!  For exactly this reason: with such a tiny glimpse of the Kingdom it is easy for us to jump to conclusions that are incorrect and exaggerate the few experiences we have based on our (incorrect) pre-conceptions.  “Jesus is the Messiah!”  “That must mean – he is a great King – just like the Emperor – He is really powerful (look what he did to those unclean spirits) - he will raise and army – he will conquer the Romans – he will establish a government – maybe I can be Secretary of State – This will be GREAT!”  Wrong – you are missing the point.  So Jesus says: just be quiet and wait and learn.  You need to have more pieces of the puzzle put together – the most important piece being the cross!
That brings us to our Gospel text for today: a healing, but not just any healing.  Jesus retires to the home of Peter after his experience in the synagogue only to discover that Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever and is not able to fulfill her important social role as hostess.  So Jesus heals her – but he does more than that.  First, he restores her to community.  When people were sick in the 1st century they lost their standing in community.  Being restored to the community of family and friends was extremely important.  And of course, this is yet another glimpse of the Kingdom for us as well.  In Baptism we become a part of a community of disciples of Jesus.  In confession and forgiveness we are restored to this community.  The Kingdom is about the community that is brought together in the Holy Spirit to which we are an essential part and to which we can be restored again and again by the power of God’s love and grace through Jesus.
But this is no mere healing. Like the story of the Jesus confronting the unclean spirits from last week, this is also a resurrection story.  The text tells us he takes her by the hand and “raises her us.”  The word (unfortunately translated as “lifted” in the NRSV) is the same verb that is used of Jesus in Mark 16:6 (pew bible NT page 42) The women see a young man in a white robe sitting in the tomb who tells them that Jesus, who was crucified is no longer there in the tomb but “he has been raised.”  This same verb, “to rise” is used several other times in Mark: the healing of the paralytic and the raising of Jairus’ daughter among them. Jesus raises them all, and restores them to life in the community.  Likewise, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised, by Jesus and restored to community so that she can fulfill her calling to “serve.” The Kingdom is a place of restoration and resurrection!
Finally we come to one of the more misunderstood words in this passage.  Peter’s mother-in-law is raised and then commences to “serve” them.  This is, however, not a case of a woman returning to doing “women’s work.”  The word for “serve” is also a loaded word in Mark.  This particular word is used only two other times in this Gospel and the most important time would be the central use from Mark 10:45 (pew bibles page 36): For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.”  This use of the word “serve” then defines the other uses – in our text 1:31 (page 27) and also in 15:41 (pages 41/42).  Jesus, the King, himself serves.  And those who follow Jesus, those who are a part of the Kingdom also are called to serve.  The Kingdom is a place of service, where those in need are served and others are called to serve.  And this text goes even farther in showing us that one who is served, like Peter’s mother-in-law initially needing Jesus’ healing service, then when restored to community begins herself to serve.  Just like us. This then is yet another glimpse of the Kingdom – a place where the power of God restores, raises and calls to service in the Kingdom.  This then indeed is the Good News:

How vital it is to know that the coming of God's kingdom is indeed good news? One could imagine God's reign coming as a reign of terror. Humans have plenty of experience with powerful kings doing terrible things to those over whom they reign. Will God be like that? Will it be punishment and brutality for those who don't get on board? No. Jesus shows over and over again, that God's power serves the people. From the very beginning of his ministry Jesus casts out those spirits opposed to God's people, those things which lay them low, as part of his heralding the kingdom. God comes to restore, to save and God's power is sufficient to do it. (1)
 (1) Dr. Sarah Hinrich, Luther Seminary - at