Let Go and Hold On: Sermon by Laura Hudson, 7.10.22

Scripture Reading: Philippians 3:4-14

Career coach and author Ashley Stahl begins her TED Talk, which is entitled, “How to figure out what you really want,” by telling the story of the day her father received a terrifying phone call. The first thing he heard was a woman screaming, then he was told his daughter had been kidnapped and would be killed if he did not send a ransom right away. After two awful hours of trying to manage the situation, thankfully, it turned out to be a scam. Ashley was alive and well at her own home, though she quickly left to visit her father and comfort him after the terror he’d experienced. 

But when it was all over, Ashley had some questions. She wondered how her father, who she said is “supersmart,” had been duped by the scammers, and she was astonished at how quickly he had given away his power to these strangers. “Eventually,” she said, “I managed to ask him, ‘Did you ever doubt that this was real?’ And he gave an answer that we all tend to give when life corners us and we buy into fear. He said to me, ‘I didn’t think that there was another option.’” 

His comment led Ashley to wonder, “When do we kidnap ourselves,” because we don’t believe there is a better option to survive, get by, or meet our needs? In her work, she has seen how many people silence their soul longings and stay in careers they don’t really want. Ashley says, “I encourage you to ask yourself, ‘Where am I kidnapping myself from the life that I really want?’ How am I giving away my power, getting into fear, just to meet my needs in the world?’” 

To me, Ashley’s questions resonate with some of the underlying questions of today’s scripture reading: What do you value most? Are you free to wholeheartedly pursue what it is that you value? If not, what do you need to let go of to get free? Will you resist or will you welcome the changes that pursuing your deepest values brings to your life? 

Ashley’s use of the kidnapping metaphor also struck me, because in today’s text, Paul plays with a Greek word which has a similar basic meaning. He uses it twice in verse 12, where one translation has it, “I press on to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me.” Or, as another has it, “I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me.”* 

As scholar Beverly Gaventa writes, “The English translation needs to be more forceful, as in ‘because I have been overtaken by Christ Jesus.’ Paul’s understanding that he was seized or captured by Christ, not that he initiated the relationship, or that he earned it somehow. Because of that seizure, which Paul now understands to have been a gift of grace, he continues to strive toward what lies ahead.”**

Recalling Paul’s story from Acts, this language of “capture” resonates. Though he never met Jesus in person, years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul, then called Saul, was on the road to Damascus, where he planned to further persecute the Jewish Christ-followers, when he had a vision of the Risen Lord.  

This mystical encounter left him blinded for three days. His sight was restored when Ananias, a Christ-follower, laid hands on him to heal him. Through Ananias, the grace of Jesus Christ quite literally reached out, “laid hold” of him, and completely changed Paul’s future.

That he didn’t initially choose these drastic changes makes it all the more remarkable how Paul eventually embraced them. What changed for Paul, aside from his name? You heard Paul’s resume in today’s text. He lays out his impeccable pedigree as a member of the people of Israel, the honorable status he was born into: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” 

Paul also lists his own credentials and accomplishments–those things he made of the life he was given: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Not only was he born into a high status family, but he spent his life fulfilling the obligations and expectations of his family and religious community. 

Summing up this sort of life-assets spreadsheet, Paul says he had plenty of reasons for “confidence in the flesh.” That phrase is important, because it reminds us that he is writing these words in the context of a warning he’s just given the Philippians about a faction of Jewish Christ-followers who are telling Gentiles that they can’t really be part of the faith unless they get circumsised.  From Paul’s perspective, these people are preaching a false confidence in the flesh. 

It is by Spirit, not by flesh, that believers become children of God in Jesus Christ. Now, Paul uses the word “flesh” a lot in his letters, and it’s important to remember that he isn’t denigrating the human body. The word he uses is not soma, which signifies a healthy body, but sarx, which refers to the body in a broken, diseased, or decaying state. Sarx is “corruptible,” both in the sense that it can be lured into destructive and immoral ways of relating to oneself and others, but also because it gets sick, decays, and dies.

So, using this word, sarx, flesh, Paul is actually pointing to a flawed worldview and a false way of being human.  As Richard Rohr comments, “flesh” is Paul’s way of naming “the trapped self, the small self, the partial self, or what Thomas Merton called the false self…Every time Paul uses the word flesh, just replace it with the word ego, and you will be much closer to his point.”*** 

Our egos, I’ve learned from psychologists, are largely composed of our habitual strategies we have learned through our lives in order to ward off vulnerability, survive, and to get our needs met. We think of them as our personality, but many of these patterns developed through trauma experiences.  What began as a way to cope with rupture, fear, and loss has become a scaffolding to construct a self which can function in society. 

Ultimately scaffolding must come down and reveal the true architecture underneath–or else we become captives in the prison of the small self.  So, where Ashley Stahl invites us to ask, “Where am I holding myself captive?” Paul might ask instead, “How are you captive to the flesh?” 

But as the author of Ephesians writes, “He made captivity itself a captive.” So, when Christ met Saul on that road, the Apostle was captured with a vision of another option, another way of being alive and in relationship with others, something more powerful and more eternal than “the flesh.” 

He was captivated by the availability of a new reality which made all the status he’d acquired look like rubbish–or as a more precise translation puts it, like “dog dung.” Tallying all his fleshly qualifications up in a sort of life-assets spreadsheet, now everything that Paul once thought to be his assets he now considers as debits against his one and only credit: “the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.”

As Paul tries to describe this asset, this new worldview, he writes, one author notes, “like a man in love, desperately desiring  to have the joy of a full union with Christ.”**** “I want to know Christ,” he says, “yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

The Resurrection of the Dead to Paul means more than life after death. With those words, Paul is pointing to the age to come, the new creation kicked off in Jesus’ resurrection, a vision of humanity and creation joined together on Earth in a “full, woken, authentic life.”***** 

It is the life of the Spirit, the life of the True Self, joined to all other True Selves. It is a life, healed from trauma, freed from fear of the other, freed for service which blesses everyone and everything. 

The vision, the in-breaking reality of this kind of life in Paul’s encounter with Jesus Christ changes everything. He does indeed suffer losses and die: he dies to the flesh, his small ego-self, to the parts of his identity which have been holding him back from embracing the fullness of God’s love. Paul lets them go, he lets the changes happen, because he is holding on to something more powerful, enduring, and eternal. 

My friends, the good news is that Jesus comes to us and lays hold of us, in his life, death, and resurrection. He comes to captivate us with another option beyond the false, small self shaped by fear.  He comes and demonstrates what it looks like to live with confidence in the Holy Spirit, to live free of fear, and to truly love God and neighbor. Jesus presses on all the way through the cross to resurrection, breaking open the new creation so that we can follow and enter in.

But here’s the difference between Christ and all the other gods: the God of Love does not bully others into conformity. Christ always gives us freedom: we can always walk away from the vision of the resurrected life and cling to the small self with its false sense of safety. Or we, like Paul, can embrace the changes and press on toward the goal, to lay hold the reality for which Christ laid hold of us. 

There is no doubt that we are living through an era of constant, rapid change. Sometimes we feel kidnapped by it; sometimes it seems the grief of the losses these changes bring goes on and on. 

Yet, the most powerful change at work in us is the call of the Resurrection Life in Christ Jesus. When we let ourselves be captivated by this calling, when we say yes to it as Paul has, every other change that happens to us is transformed from obstacle to opportunity. We are made able to release the captivity of the flesh and receive the freedom of the Holy Spirit.  

Paul says he hasn’t gotten there yet, but he’s not giving up. He forgets what is behind and strains toward what is ahead. Filled with the Holy Spirit  here and now, he engages his purpose with passion and power,   facing whatever suffering that comes with courage.

My friends, Paul, called by Christ, in turn calls us to go all in, wholeheartedly pursuing the life that is really life. Letting go of captivity to fear, let us hold fast to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, and let us press ever closer to the prize of the resurrection life. Alleluia and Amen. 


*Bible translations are the NRSVUE and the CEB from BibleGateway.com

**Beverly Gaventa, quoted from Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 512-3, at Pulpit Fiction: Proper 22A (OT 27) — Pulpit Fiction

***Richard Rohr, https://cac.org/daily-meditations/paul-nondual-teacher-2017-05-17/


*****Pulpit Fiction, as above.

Follow the Tears: 9.26.21: Sermon by Laura

Sometimes, when I’m preparing a sermon, I ask God for a dream to help me find my way into the text. It certainly seemed fitting to ask for a dream about Jacob’s dream! 

But instead, the dream I had gave me a phrase from much earlier in Genesis. I received words from the story of Adam and Eve, where the scripture says, “They were naked and unafraid.” 

Dreams! Yet maybe I dreamed of this phrase to remember how the things were between God and human beings, at the beginning of the Bible’s Big Story we start following today, as we start preaching through Year 4 of the Narrative Lectionary. 

A lectionary is a set of texts selected from the whole Bible to be the focus for worship and preaching over the seasons of the Christian year. The Narrative Lectionary was selected with the purpose of telling the Big Story of God’s relationship with human beings from Genesis to Jesus and on through the beginning of the Church. 

In order to complete the Ephesians series, we’ve skipped some important episodes at the beginning of this Big Story–the Creation stories and the stories of Abraham, which both set the stage for today’s reading. 

So here’s a quick recap. At the very beginning, humans were “naked and unafraid” with God and one another, but it doesn’t last long. “And then there was trouble!” goes a phrase from Thomas the Tank Engine tales, which we still repeat around our house. Adam and Eve meet the serpent, eat the fruit, and exit the garden. Cain murders his brother Abel, escaping to start a civilization which becomes wicked, and only Noah and his children survive the Great Flood, which was intended to be a sort of reset of humanity’s relationship with God. 

Alas! More trouble. The reset is flawed. Shame and fear have taken root in human nature, and the peace and harmony of “naked and unafraid,” that intimate trust with God and all other creatures which was always God’s desire and intention, seems impossible to restore. 

But God doesn’t give up. God tries yet again, this time with a covenant between himself and Abram, whom God renamed Abraham, “father of nations.” Abraham’s son Isaac is the first in a family lineage through which God has promised to bless all people on Earth. Today, we take up the Big Story with Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who is the unlikely inheritor of the Covenant Promise. Let us hear the Word of the Lord: 

Read Scripture: Genesis 28:10-17

He was asleep: but actually, it was the first time in his entire life when he was fully awake. Fleeing from Canaan to Haran, running from the brother whose birthright he’d swindled and whose blessing he’d stolen, Jacob came to a point in his journey when he could just go no further. He had to stop for a night of rest. Not aware that he’d stopped at a place where his grandfather Abraham had once camped, Jacob knew only the exhaustion, loneliness, and fear of the unknown after leaving everything behind.

He must have felt that he had failed. Jacob had spent his young life grasping for all the eldest son entitlements of his elder brother Esau. But as soon as he’d achieved his ambitions, Esau’s murderous anger forced him to leave it all behind. 

Now, as Jacob picked up a stone, all that he could find for a pillow, and stretched out, fully exposed to the night sky, he might have been thinking, Has it all come to this?

Have you ever had a moment like this? Perhaps, for days and weeks, you’ve been trying to stay in control of things, running through your lists, checking off tasks, watching the news, keeping track of risks, working hard to meet your deepest desires for your family and yourself.  

Maybe, like Jacob, you are ambitious, and you are trying to move at least one rung up the ladder of success from your parents.Or maybe you’ve been running in place just to stay even. In our culture of more, bigger, and better, many of us keep running for most of our lives. 

Then something happens. The circumstances of your life bring you to a sharp edge, in spite of your best attempts to avoid it.  Your health falters, you lose your job, something happens to a loved one, or you just start feeling sort of dead inside and can’t figure out why. 

Or maybe, beyond your individual situation, it’s a national or global catastrophe. An earthquake. A wildfire. A hurricane. A pandemic. A crisis breaks into and shatters the “fragile orb”* of rules, rhythms, and routines you thought would maintain stability and order. And it requires a total reordering of your priorities, expectations, and ideas about what life has been and will be. 

Jacob didn’t know it yet, but the crisis which forced him from his home was about to open up a crack in his life for God to finally get in. 

Of course, God had been present with him all along, but Jacob did not know that either. In all his competitive striving, Jacob had walled himself off from any real connection with God or anyone else. He’d probably heard plenty about Yahweh’s covenant blessing, but to Jacob, Yahweh was Dad’s God, not my God. And he really had no clue about the vast and cosmic purpose his family had been chosen to fulfill. Jacob only knew that he needed to sleep. 

And in the mystery of grace, the vulnerability of utter fatigue finally made him available to God’s love. Closer to “naked and unafraid” than he’d ever been before, Jacob has a curious dream, which begins with a vision of something like a stairway or ramp, reaching all the way to the sky. Angels, messengers of God, traverse this ladder between heaven and earth.

As Walter Brueggemann writes, this image tells Jacob that, “Earth is not left to its own resources and heaven is not a remote self-contained realm for the gods. Heaven has to do with earth. And earth finally may count on the resources of heaven.”**

Even more remarkably, the Lord God comes to stand beside Jacob to give a direct message. “I am YHWH,” God begins. To give Jacob God’s personal name is to extend to him the intimate relationship God had with Abraham, who was called a “friend of God.” God continues by reiterating the promises first given to Abraham and then to Isaac now to Jacob himself: the land shall be given to Jacob and his offspring, who will be as prolific of the dust, and through them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed…” 

Finally, God offers a powerful assurance: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 

However hopeless Jacob’s situation had seemed, the dream reveals a different reality: God. Jacob is accompanied and upheld by the God who promises him a future of hope and blessing, and a return to this very land. As one author writes, “Now he can continue on his way with trust. He is an exile, but not an exile without hope. He is lonely, but not alone. Far from home, he can keep going because of this dream and God’s promise. His feelings of fear are no longer the only reality.”***

After nineteen months of global pandemic, many of us feel like exiles. We wonder when we will be allowed to return to the homeland of “the way things were.” And we are so tired–tired of worrying about our families and neighbors, tired of putting on masks and hand sanitizer, tired of carefully deciding which social gatherings to risk and which to avoid, tired of the division in our communities over the best ways to prevent the virus’ spread, tired of new case tallies, and above all, tired of death.

Grief is an exhausting emotion, and few of us willingly allow ourselves to feel it.  Whenever I let myself weep, I want to sleep the rest of the day afterwards! Yet, to wall ourselves off from grief is also to block ourselves from positive emotions like love and joy. 

“Follow the tears,” my spiritual directors have trained me, because “[t]ears often reflect an opening to God’s grace.”**** So, perhaps it’s time for us to stop running. Perhaps we need to stop and take time out to face the rock hard pillow of grief. We are not going back to the way things were anytime soon, and possibly never. These nineteen months have changed the world. Perhaps it’s time for you to grieve what you have lost. 

This I know for sure: when you lay yourself down, vulnerable and available, naked and unafraid, and you let your tears flow, they will make an opening through which a fresh grace of God can enter. They will make a window through which you can see that God is here and has been here all along. 

As you finally release your tears, you will not drown in the puddle! You may, however, sleep, and in that sleep, God will remind you again of God’s promises, and God will call you beyond your fear and sadness to a greater purpose, to your own way of blessing the world. 

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he was not only refreshed but amazed. “Surely the Lord is in this place…” he cried out.“This is none other than the house of God!” He took the rock he slept on and set it up as a pillar, a touchstone he could return to, of God’s presence here and with him always. He vowed to make that place a center of worship and thanksgiving. 

After the panic of his exile, it is a new beginning. With new determination, Jacob leaves Bethel. The road he and his children walk is long and winding, but they find their way back to the Promised Land again and again. Finally, through Jacob’s lineage, God’s promise is fulfilled, the blessing of all families on Earth, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

So what about us? In our grief and sense of exile, my friends, in the disorder and uncertainty of these days, let us allow ourselves to rest and trust in the God who has always been with us, who desires for us a future of blessing, who works through us to bless all the families of God’s earth. 

This week, I invite you to find a stone, a small one, that you can hold in your hand, and as you hold it, remember all the places and people through whom God has met you. Remember that God’s promises are as certain as this rock, true, strong, and reliable. Remember that heaven has to do with earth, and earth may count on heaven’s resources.

The Lord is here, in this very place, and God is working out God’s promises, so that all of us can find our way home to that place we can rest in God, naked and unafraid. Alleluia and Amen!

(You can watch Laura preach this sermon by clicking HERE )



** Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, 243


****Quoted by Susan S. Phillips in Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction. New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2008,36.

The Strength of Christ: sermon by Laura, 9.19.21

Ephesians 6:10-20

Once upon a time there was a chapel. It was a small, round building on a college campus. Students and their chaplain gathered there for Christian worship on Sunday evenings, but on other days of the week, groups from the community used the space, which was just right for intimate gatherings. 

One summer day, a group of women came together early in the morning to do their spiritual practice together. But when they walked into the chapel, they discovered that another community group had decorated the space with camouflage banners, tiny green plastic tanks, and toy U.S. Army-style guns dangling from the ceiling. 

Now, though these women often practiced poses named after warriors, the intent of their practice was union with God and others. In a chapel dedicated to a nonviolent Messiah, they wondered how anyone who followed him could simultaneously glorify instruments of war and pretend they were merely children’s toys. In shock and anger, the women tore down the weapons. 

True story: these events actually took place at the Sheldon Jackson College Chapel. The first group was–you probably guessed it–a women’s yoga circle. But did you guess that the second group was actually a local church, leading Vacation Bible School with the theme “Soldiers for Christ?” 

You can bet that VBS used this passage from Ephesians 6 at some point in their lessons. Paul’s metaphor, of putting on the “whole armor of God,” might seem right in line with the war kitsch. After all, Paul certainly describes the armor and weaponry of soldiers in his time. The VBS folks probably thought they were just updating the metaphor. 

But the yoga women, who themselves regularly practiced the postures of Warrior 1, 2, and 3, thought the VBSers had crossed a line. And I would agree–there is a big difference between the tone and context of Paul’s metaphor, which was given to encourage a persecuted minority dwelling in an occupied nation, and the visual of weaponry produced and utilized in present-day military occupations by a world superpower. Though I also think the yoga women’s concerns would have been better served by opening a dialogue instead of rushing to tear down the decorations! 

This story is a parable of a conundrum in which we often find ourselves. Paul is very clear that people who follow Jesus will have to withstand enemies. His metaphor draws on the virtues of the Warrior: standing strong to protect others. But what is the difference between standing strong as a Warrior and being a bully? How do we embrace Warrior virtues without glorifying War? 

First, we need to understand the nature of the enemies of Christ. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” Paul says, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” 

Paul is clear that our enemies are not other human beings, but rather spiritual influences, which infiltrate and distort the inner lives of individuals and the ethos of institutions. And it is very difficult to pin down and name this enemy, because, as Eugene Petersen writes, it is “evil that rarely looks like evil.” Petersen continues, 

“There are a lot of things in this world that people do that are wrong and that look wrong. Paul has mentioned some of these…But there is far more that is wrong with the world than the sum total of what we name as sin and sins…This evil has nothing to do with cartoon caricatures of pitchfork-wielding demons or sulphur-breathing dragons.”

“The powers” Paul is talking about “insidiously make themselves at home” in institutions which are founded with good intentions and provide ongoing benefits to society. Money, language, and technology–good things in and of themselves–can become evil when institutionalized in business, governments, the media, schools, churches, and other structures. Petersen writes, “The basic good of money is idolized into the god Mammon; the basic good of language is debased into lies of propaganda; the basic good of technology is depersonalized into a world of non-relationship.”

The early Christians were pacifists. As religious minorities in the Roman empire, they faced harassment, discrimination, and the suppression of their officially illegal religious activities. But they understood that their battle was spiritual, a battle against sin, evil, and death; these forces waged war “in their inner spirit and at the cosmic level,” with tangibly “dehumanizing, death-dealing, alienating” effects. Early Christians died as nonviolent martyrs, rather than take up arms against other human beings.

But as the history of Christianity has continued on, the concept of spiritual warfare has too often been used to justify flesh and blood wars, with some people calling others the ‘enemies of God.’ Christians began persecuting other Christians by 325 CE, after Constantine legalized Christianity. The tragedy is that any time we justify violence against other human beings, all of us created in God’s image, we’ve already been defeated by the true foes Paul exhorts us to stand firm against. 

My friends, we don’t have to be defeated! In fact, the victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We face an enemy in its death throes, though still dangerous. And though it is difficult to see, we are not powerless against this enemy. We need to be aware that we will be attacked, sometimes full on, sometimes in distractions, distorted teachings, or in the age-old temptations of sex, money, and power.  

Of course, you won’t see it at all if you simply refuse to acknowledge that evil exists or that it is constantly exerting influence upon you and infecting your relationships! But acknowledging evil’s influence does not mean living in paranoia or anxiety, or setting up some kind of fortress to guard yourself from it. Nor should you ally yourselves with those who think of themselves as “defenders of purity,” who “vilify, mount crusades, [and] define [them]selves by what [they] are against.” 

Paul describes a third option, neither hiding, nor attacking directly, since the “wiles of the devil” are usually immune to direct attack. Our response to the enemy we face is to stand firm, to “be strong in the strength of the Lord.” 

Now let’s pause for a moment and think about the “strength” of Jesus Christ. In the gospel stories, we see that Jesus did not hide from conflict or controversy, and he rarely spoke directly against anyone, though he did rebuke the hypocrisy he saw in religious leaders.  Overall, he stood his ground gently and generously, condemning violence when his disciples tried to defend him with swords: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” He did no violence to those who actively harmed him, but on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

“Lowly and meek, yet all powerful:” that’s how one of my favorite songs describes Jesus’ strength.  That’s the strength of the Lord in which Christians are called to stand. “We are called to realize and cultivate our unique identity as men and women living under the lordship of Christ in the household of God that is the church,” writes Petersen. 

Our strength is in that identity and community. And the good news is that God has provided us tools, not only to withstand evil influences, but even to transform evil into good: We’ve been provided the whole armor of God! 

Paul’s metaphor serves to remind us of the tools God has provided: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and word of God. By linking these qualities to items of armor, Paul emphasizes that they are not passive. They are means of active participation which develop qualities of character within us as we engage with Christ in the redemption of the cosmos. In fact, though Paul calls us to put on external items–a belt, a breastplate, shoes, shield, and helmet–as we mature in our practice of them, these qualities become internalized, like a strong backbone and core strength, so that we come to embody the strength of God in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

It does take practice, and we need help: to recognize the enemy’s attacks, to learn how to put on the whole armor, and to stand firm. Thankfully, God has also given us one another, God’s church, a community of practice in which we hold one another up in prayer. 

In the final section of today’s scripture, nearly at the close of the book of Ephesians, Paul reminds his readers once more of the power of prayer. The letter began in prayer, and now it ends in a request for prayer. Prayer: the communication of both our thanksgiving and our supplication, our communion, direct with the Source of all that is! Prayer is the most powerful tool we have, not only to withstand evil influences, but to transform evil into good! 

Prayer keeps us alert and helps us persevere. Prayer reveals how obstacles can become opportunities. Through prayer we are enabled to see all people with God’s eyes, the eyes of love, so that instead of repaying evil, we can offer and receive forgiveness, and be reconciled to those we have harmed or who have harmed us. 

Never be too shy to ask for prayer on your own behalf! Even the mighty apostle needs others to pray for him. He models for us his own awareness of his susceptibility to evil and the struggle of his current state–which he also sees as an opportunity. An “ambassador in chains,” Paul desires to speak boldly the message of the gospel. The prayers of the community will strengthen him when nothing else can! 

So, my friends: stand firm! You know well how challenging it can be in our times to discern the influences of evil from the good. You also know the strength of the Lord: lowly and meek, yet all powerful. It is not easy to stand in Christ’s strength, but we are here for one another, praying with and for each other, that we will neither cower in fear nor demonize our opponents, but instead stand firm, consciously participating with God’s truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Word in the redemption of the cosmos, now and always. Amen. 

(Note: nearly all quotes are from Eugene Petersen’s Practicing Resurrection, a major resource in the writing of this sermon.)

Life Together in the Spirit: Sermon by Keith 9.12.21

Scripture Reading: Ephesians 5:21-6:9

I don’t know if you were watching, but our voyage into Ephesians is about to get choppy with one of the hardest texts in all of Paul’s writings.   This text has caused a lot of consternation and sadly, abuse.  And maybe I’m a sucker for punishment because as I read Ephesians, I felt called to take on this passage.  I’ve said before, sometimes it is good to wrestle with the hard passages of scripture with integrity and not ignore them or dismiss them or whitewash them yet discover a word from the Lord for us today.  So, I’m going to put on my protective gear as I read this passage in case anyone throws something at me as I read it.

(Keith puts on a hard hat to read the scripture passage)

It probably depends on what I have to say next, but is it safe to take this off?  Here we go.  This is one of those texts that many people have used to dismiss Paul, especially thinking that he had a negative view of women.  Wouldn’t it be easier to take a permanent marker and go over text like these and others where Paul seems to dismiss or degenerate women?  Wouldn’t it be best just to get out the scissors and cut out all this talk about wives submitting to their husbands?  I will definitely say I have wrestled with this text for a long time, and you can rest assured, this passage was not read at my wedding.  When our Greek professor in seminary brought up that this was the passage that was read at his wedding, he needed a hard hat based on the reaction from the female students in the class.  But it is precisely because of that education, spending time in texts like these, learning about the 1st century world of Jesus and Paul, that I think Paul has something important to say to us today.  In taking the whole landscape of Paul’s writing together, we find that he is more of an advocate for the freedom and the equality of all people in Christ than we could ever imagine.  And with that overview of Paul, I think we can hone in on these troubling passages.  Paul is trying to bring the gospel message to new and unexpected situations of the first century.  

In spending time with Paul, I’ve learned that he says everything for a reason.  Why would Paul include these household rules?  Just maybe it had to do with Christ’s return.  If people believed that Christ’s return was imminent, maybe they were stepping away from their familial relationships and Paul is trying to let them know that these relationships are important, even as they have to wait longer than expected.  Just a few verses before this, he instructs them not to get drunk with wine but to be filled with the Spirit.  Were they celebrating their new found freedom in Christ in ways that were causing disruption in the family order?  Paul wants to ground them.  How was faith to affect the ongoing structures of their lives?  This just might be the reason we find household codes here in Ephesians and other epistles, tables of duties for husbands, wives, children and slaves, which begin by addressing this concern very concretely with how families are to be faithful to the gospel in the midst of ongoing social responsibilities in love and obedience while they wait.

I can appreciate this effort:  The effort to discern how Christian faith shapes our lives at its most intimate and critical points as well as its emphasis on a relationship with the Lord as the means of discerning how we are to treat others.  Paul is genuinely attempting to reframe marriage in the context of Christ’s lordship.  I can really appreciate that in light of that attempt, Christian husbands are called to love their spouses, not once, but three times.  The call is to love, not dominate.  Love her, love her, love her.  And Paul is clear about this.   Love is defined in Jesus Christ.  So husbands are specifically directed to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.  Which is to say the husband must spare nothing, not even his own life, in care and concern for his wife.  This is radical in a patriarchal society in which a wife is required by law to be subject to her husband.  Paul admonishes Christian husbands not to stand on their secular rights but to join their wives in mutual submission, one to another, out of reverence to Christ.  There is no better description of Christian marriage found in scripture than what is found at the end of Ephesians 5:  Where Paul, in trying to define marriage, suggests the mystery found in a marriage is a profound one, one that mirrors the very mystery of the love between Christ and the church.   In Ephesians, marriage reflects the very reality of grace.

But that doesn’t mean there are no problems.  This text has been used by countless Christians to theologically legitimate a pattern of wifely subordination.  It cannot be said that the relationship between Christ and the church, which the text uses to reflect marriage, is a relationship between equals.  Thus the text does not address the husband and wife as equals.  I struggle with understanding that love is a man thing and submission is a woman thing.  This is out of sync with Jesus’ own teaching.  When he washed the feet of his disciples the night before his death, didn’t he demonstrate that love and subordination go hand in hand?  And didn’t he teach them that they were not to model their relationships of authority of those of the world at large?  Didn’t he say that whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant? And whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all?  Quote: “I am among you as one who serves.”  

Earlier in Ephesians, Paul tears down the dividing walls of those who follow Christ.  Has he just put up a new one?  If he did, I can’t believe he did it intentionally.  Yes, Paul for sure does something amazing when he endeavors to redefine marriage in terms of Christian faith but the first century cultural pattern remains within it as well. And we shouldn’t pull the 1st century Gentile context off the page and plop it down into a 21st Century context.  Doing so has led to a legitimation of use of this text in ways I don’t believe Paul would have ever intended.   It has become hazardous to women’s health.  There was no way that when Paul called wifes to be submissive to their husbands, he was advocating physical violence.  But it has been interpreted that way and because of this text, abused women have stayed in relationships much longer than they ever should have.  

So, do we get rid of this text?  I believe there is still good news here that we can live by even while we fight against the way this text has been abused to allow abuse.  It has a word for us today, whether we are married or single, divorced or widowed, or gainfully employed or retired.  For wherever you live or work or whatever your circumstances may be, this part of Ephesians reminds us that our Christian faith affects the structures of our lives.  Many of us live in families.  And God knows that living in a family isn’t always easy, for we all know there are no perfect parents, no perfect children, no perfect spouse, nor perfect in-laws.  Life together pulls us and strains us in maybe one of the best ways that God gives us to grow out of ourselves into something more like we were meant to be.  And so like those first century Christians, we continue to discern the ways Christian faith shapes and transforms our lives at these most intimate and critical points.  How can we in our relationships with our partners, our parents, our children, our siblings we can best love one another, forgive one another, and live in service with one another?  This not only impacts our imperfect familial relationships, but our imperfect church family and our imperfect job settings.  In fact, it impacts every relationship we have.

Friends, we don’t have to like this text, but we need to embrace the instruction and the underlying concerns and commitments it reveals.  Because as we come before this text, what we are witnessing is the new community in Christ revealed, however imperfect it may be, engaging in discernment that we continue in our day, however imperfectly.  We see faith being enacted in love and love seeing its transforming power in the midst of this age.  This text reminds us that the grace of God in Jesus Christ continues to empower us to transform the structures we find ourselves and discern the ways we can serve one another in love in our time and place.  We will find ourselves wrestling with it as part of God’s own work within us forming in us the mind of Jesus Christ over our entire life times.  And that’s a voyage worth taking.  Amen.

To watch a video of Pastor Keith preaching this sermon in the 9.12.21 Worship service, click HERE.

Follow Me!

Sermon by Keith, 3.1.2020: Mark 10: 17-31

Before I read this morning’s text, I want to go over a couple things.  First I want to ask you a question.  How many of you have been in a room with a group of people, and then maybe the speaker or the host or even just one of the people in the room says something that changes the entire atmosphere of the room, either for good or bad? 

That’s what happened with this text for me when I preached it before, probably about 7 years ago.  The text is usually given the title, “The Rich Young Ruler” and the story shows up in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Matthew tells us he was young and Luke tells us he was a ruler, thus the Rich Young Ruler.  I’ll read the text here in just a bit so if you aren’t familiar with it, you soon will be. 

When I preached on it before, when I finished and looked up to say, “The word of the Lord,” the atmosphere in the congregation changed. Before reading, there was my congregation, eager to hear a word from the Lord.  But when I finished, about half the people in the room had their arms crossed.  What’s body language saying when you are talking to someone and they cross their arms?  Yeah, I’m not listening to you!  And I’ve always wondered how this text has been used, maybe to beat you over the head about your giving. 

So, my invitation to you before we read the text is to just listen to it.  It is a hard text, but an important one especially since we find it Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  But it is also full of grace if we don’t put up walls to keep that grace out.

The second thing I need to let you know is I’m going to read a translation from NT Wright that is a little bit different than what you might be used to hearing but I believe it gets closer to understanding the first century Jewish worldview and I’ll explain why I use his translation as we get into the sermon. 

Are we ready?  Arms loose, relaxed, hearts and minds open.  Here we go.  (Read text).

Most of us have had a moment in our lives where everything changed and how you responded to and looked at the world was forever altered.  Maybe for you it was when you moved out of your parents’ house, or when you got married, or maybe even divorced.  For our country, one of those turning points was 9/11.  How we viewed our nation and our place in the world was drastically changed. And I’d even argue that the Second World War changed the trajectory that the entire globe was on, it literally tore a hole in world.  Everything was different, different governments and societal structures, different hopes and needs, and different possibilities and dangers. 

For the first century Jew, there were two events that changed how they viewed themselves in the world.  The first one was in the past: the Passover event that led to the people leaving slavery in Egypt.  The second was actually an event that hadn’t happened yet.  Something would happen, they believed, that would make everything different.  A great event would occur which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers, a time of prosperity when all the prophesies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring. 

That future day had an impact on the everyday of the typical Jewish person at the time of Christ. Their way of talking about all this was to distinguish between the Present Age and what was referred to as the Age to Come.  The Present Age, their current time, was full of sin and injustice, lying and oppression. Good people were suffering while wicked people got away with wickedness.  But in the Age to Come, that would all be changed. 

So the question pressing on any Jew who believed this was, can I be sure that I will be one of those who will inherit the Age to Come, and, if so, how?  This is the question this man who stops Jesus wants answered. 

Now, many a translation puts his question as, “How do I inherit eternal life?”  A long Christian tradition has assumed that he wanted to know how he could be sure he was going to heaven when he died, but that wasn’t how the man in the story would have put it. 

The word that we often translate ‘eternal’ comes from a word which means ‘belonging to the Age.’  In this Coming Age, God was going to make the whole world a new place; when that happened, it wasn’t about escaping this reality. You wouldn’t want to be away in heaven but here on earth to enjoy the great blessing God was giving in re-created reality.

This understanding changes how we read Jesus’ words, “You will have treasure in heaven.”  Jesus doesn’t mean that this man must go to heaven to get his treasure; Jesus means that God will keep it stored up for him until the time when, in the Age to Come, all is revealed.  The reason you have money in the bank is not so you can spend it in the bank but so that you can take it out and spend it somewhere else.  The reason you have treasure in heaven, God’s storehouse, is so that you can enjoy the Age to Come when God brings heaven and earth together at last.  So it isn’t about escaping this world, it is about bountiful living in the next, recreated world and enjoying God’s blessing to its fullest.

Now, other groups had answered had answers for this rich, young ruler’s question.  For the Pharisee who worked with the common people in the village synagogues to the Essenes who had isolated themselves in the desert, to inherit the Age to Come meant living out their own detailed interpretation of the Jewish law.  More importantly, you had to join their group.  If you were in with the right group, you would be on the right side of the blessings of the Age to Come. 

So, you could look at the man’s question not as “How do I inherit the Age to Come?” but more like, “Jesus, just what sort of movement might you be leading?”  He wants to make sure he has his ducks in row and in the right group to get the most of the Age to Come. 

Jesus’ reply must have puzzled this young man greatly.  All he did was to restate the basic commandments from the Ten Commandments which every Jew knew well.  Or at least some of them.  Notice which ones he misses.  He starts the list with numbers 6-9, murder, adultery, theft, perjury.  Adds an extra one with ‘don’t defraud.’ and then goes back to number 5 about honoring your parents.  He omits number 1 to 4, putting God first, no idols, not taking God’s name in vain, and the Sabbath and also number 10 about covetousness.

Now, watch how the rest of the conversation comes round the back with a fresh twist on all the commandments (except Sabbath keeping).  Jesus’ basic demand is not for some logic-chopping extra observance, some tightening of a definition here, some tweaking of a meaning there.  No: It is for idols and covetousness to be thrown to the winds.  Sell it all and give to the poor

And it is for a radical rethink on what putting God first, and not taking his name in vain, might mean:  Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God; come and follow me.

Jesus’ new movement is indeed a radical revision of what it means to be God’s people, to follow the Law of Moses.  Because he, Jesus, is here, a whole new world opens up:  The Age to Come is not now simply in the future, though it is that, too.  It is bursting through into the present, like a baby chick so keen to be born that it’s already sticking its beak through the shell ahead of the right time.  Every time that you hear Jesus talking about the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about that future reality of the Age to Come being pulled into the here and now so we can experience it today.

The discussion that follows the rich man’s sad departure reflects the disciples’ shock at being told that wealth won’t buy you a place in the Age to Come.  Their surprise only makes sense if we assume that they regarded wealth as a sign of God’s pleasure. 

Jesus cuts right through that surprise.  Wealth can be a blessing from God, but if that wealth gets in the way of loving God and neighbor, then it becomes a block to the overwhelming treasures God has in store for us.  Riches can no more go or get you into the Age to Come than a camel can go through a needle—a deliberate overstatement.  In God’s kingdom now and fully realized in the Age to Come, everything will be upside down and inside out, all things are possible with God, and the first will be last and the last first. 

In particular, though, those who have left family and possessions to follow Jesus will receive many more things back in the Present Age—a new and ever-enlarging family of their fellow-disciples, with homes open to them where they go.  And yes, persecutions are waiting for them, too.  Mark wants to stress that the paradoxical living in the Age to Come now clashes with Present Age.  They are at odds with each other. 

 So, what’s Christ’s invitation to us this first Sunday of Lent? 

It is to take his call to follow him seriously.  What is it that gets in the way of you following him?  Wealth?  Power?  Status?  Even our family or home can become idols that direct our love away from God and neighbor.  Take this week as an invitation to open your life to the call of discipleship.  Let the Holy Spirit work on you. 

Friends, the good news is that that all things are possible with God. God can take those things that hinder us from truly following him and transform them and us into beacons that point to the Age to Come.  We open our homes to each other and the stranger.  We share, not because of a fear of scarcity, but because of the abundance we have been blessed with.  We use our influence to lift others up instead of a continued race to the top of the heap.  God’s grace and love are shared in new and multifaceted ways.

All the early Christians came to believe that with Jesus’ death and resurrection the Age to Come had indeed broken fully into the Present Age.  The future hope had been pulled into the present reality to be experienced and embraced.  That day was a day that everything changed for humanity and all of creation.  Nothing has been the same since. 

That’s one of the hardest points for us to grasp today about their way of looking at the world and at God.  But if we even begin to take it seriously, we’ll see there is nowhere to hide from Jesus’ uncompromising–though cheerful and celebratory and blessing-filled—call to discipleship. 

The call “Come on!  Follow me!” echoes down through history to us today.  We are invited to respond with a cry of “Yes!” with all that we are and with all that we have. 



Sermon by Keith, 2.23.20: Mark 8:27–9:8

I have been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land! 

No, literally, I’ve been to the top of the mountain and have seen the promised land. Now, there are some arguments about which mountain Jesus was transfigured on because the scriptures don’t say exactly which one it was. The two top contenders are Mount Hermon, an almost 10,000 feet mountain way north of the Sea of Galilee, or the much shorter but still impressive Mt. Tabor in central Galilee. It is this one that I got to go to the top of, a flat topped volcanic cone that sits by itself away from the other range of hills and mountains. There is more than one church there, because people can’t seem to agree about where the exact spot Jesus might have been transfigured.  What is ironic is that in the one church we did get to visit, they built the huge sanctuary with this beautiful mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the ceiling, and off to the left and right of the main sanctuary are two chapels, one for Moses and one for Elijiah. Peter got his wish after all!

But what impressed me most about the spot the church was built on was the view.  There is what can best be described as an observation deck to see out across the valley.  Our guide, Ezra, started pointing out historical places that took place. There is Nazareth, there is Zarephath, the place where Elijah lived with the widow.  He lists off all the battles that took place that are listed in the Old Testament. And the valley’s name? Megiddo. Or the Valley of Armageddon, the place where history will culminate per the book of Revelation.  Before our eyes was ancient history and future history all wrapped up for one to take it all in and really see it. What a spot for the Transfiguration. 

I’ve always struggled with the meaning of this story.  Glow in the dark Jesus being visited by Moses and Elijah.  But the more I’ve studied it, I think it is a moment of seeing, of clarity, of not just from a human point of view but also from God’s point of view.  That’s kind of a scary proposition, to see the world from God’s point of view, but we will try.

Let’s start by taking a step back.  What has happened in the gospel so far? Jesus has, metaphorically speaking, led the disciples up the high mountain to a new view of God’s kingdom during the first half of Mark’s gospel.  In extraordinary actions and puzzling but profound words he has unveiled for them what God is up to. Those ‘outside’ look and look, but never see; the disciples are having their eyes opened, to that they can see for the first time the inner reality of God’s kingdom, and its central truth that, even though he doesn’t look like what they might have expected, Jesus really is the Messiah.  Thus the story so far keeps telling us about eyes being opened, in several senses, and it all concentrates on Jesus himself and God’s kingdom that is arriving with him.

Now Jesus takes the disciples up a high mountain, and something similar happens, through on an entirely different level.  Western culture is increasing realizing that most cultures have never forgotten, that the world we live in has many layers.  And when we peer into one of these layers, we ever afterwards see everything differently.

That’s what happened on this mountain.  What was the inner reality of Jesus’ work? He was continuing and completing the tasks of the great prophet Elijah, and the lawgiver of old, Moses himself.  Both of them, interestingly, had disappeared from view rather than died in the ordinary way, surrounded by their families and friends. Now they reappear, with the veil of ordinariness drawn back for a moment, and Jesus is with them, shining with a brilliant light.

What does this all mean?  We should state that the Transfiguration isn’t a revelation of Jesus divinity; if it were, that would make Elijah and Moses divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think.  Mark does believe in Jesus’ divinity, but hasn’t told us why yet. Instead, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, just the way a scenic vista can change how you view the world or how music transforms words that are sung.  This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It is the sign that he is indeed the true Messiah. Everything is culminating with him.

That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying.  Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job.  Mark is happy for later Christians to hear in the phrase ‘son of God’ fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard, but for them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at baptism, is that Jesus is the Messiah. That’s enough to be with now on the next steps of Jesus’ journey.

Once again, Jesus tells them not to reveal what they have seen.  This time he gives them a cryptic time-frame: ‘until the son of man has risen from the dead.’ Not surprisingly, this puzzles them.  In Jewish thought of the time, ‘the resurrection’ would happen to all the righteous at the end of time, not to one person ahead of all the others. 

What could Jesus mean by implying that ‘the son of man’ would rise from the dead, while they would be still living the sort of normal life in which people would tell one another what they had seen months or years before?  Mark’s readers would already know about Jesus’ resurrection, but the characters in his story certainly didn’t and weren’t expecting it. Like much that Jesus said, it remained cryptic and puzzling until after the event.  

The final exchange is even more teasing.  The disciples are trying to work it out; scripture, they know, tells them that Elijah will prepare the way for the Messiah.  Jesus also has other scriptures on hand which speak to him of his own vocation; this time, he seems to be blending passages and images from Daniel and Isaiah.  But the fateful identification, the one that matters, is his cryptic comment about Elijah having already come. Now there is nothing left but the final messianic task, the task which Jesus has already declared will involve his own suffering and death.

So, what does this mean for us?  We don’t generally experience things in our lives as dramatic as this story.  Sometimes I think it would be nice if we did, but I have to admit I’d probably be as bewildered as Peter.

But in Mark, the Transfiguration takes place right in the middle of his gospel, the transition point of Jesus’ ministry in the Galilee region to headed to Jerusalem and this death and resurrection.  What have you seen so far? There is an invitation to look back and see how Jesus has revealed himself as the Messiah as God intended.

Peter was surprised. The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die. He is supposed to lead Israel to freedom and new glory. How was it in his healing and teachings that Jesus was letting them know he was a different kind of Messiah than they had expected? Be as surprised as Peter at what you discover about Jesus and yourself during this time in Galilee. There is also an invitation to look towards Jerusalem and follow Jesus with your own cross.

Most importantly, each of us is called to do what the heavenly voice said: Listen to Jesus, because he is God’s beloved son. As we learn to watch where he goes and listen to what he has to teach us, even if sometimes we get scared and say all the wrong things, we may find that glory creeps up on us unawares, strengthening us, as it did the disciples, for the road ahead.  Amen.

Offensive Jesus

Sermon by Laura 2.9.20: Mark 6:1-29

Forgive me for attempting a football metaphor, since I know barely enough about the game to follow the Super Bowl once a year. I do know that each team has offensive and defensive players. The offense has a mission: advancing the ball across the opposing team’s territory to score a touchdown in the end zone. The defense stands in the way of the offense  to keep them from scoring and possibly take the ball away.

Teams need both skills to win big. Defense is important to prevent your opponent’s touchdowns. But—correct me later, football people, if I’m wrong—it seems that a great offense is even more important. If you have a great defense and no offense, the other team won’t score, but neither will you. That’s why the great quarterbacks are the stars of the show. They are the leaders and directors of the offensive game.

So maybe we can compare Jesus to a great quarterback? If so, Mark 6 demonstrates his offensive game. Jesus’ urgent mission is to press forward his message, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news.” He carries out his teaching and preaching, healings and exorcisms, his pronouncements of forgiveness and his confrontations with the religious authorities, all toward the goal of focusing God’s people on God’s in-breaking reign and apprenticing disciples to live in God’s will and ways.  Jesus is on the move, inexorably advancing toward the goalposts of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection.

But even as Jesus is on the offense, he offends people.

In Mark 6, Jesus and his discipleship team arrive in Nazareth. Unlike the Chiefs returning to Kansas City, there is no victory parade to welcome him home! Quite the opposite. Tales of Jesus’ mighty acts have gotten back to his hometown, but they are not impressed—they are offended.

All they can see is the handyman putting on airs, a local yokel gotten too big for his britches. What else is there to know about Mary’s son and James’ brother? He can’t possibly be the Messiah. But though hardly anyone in Nazareth is receptive enough to catch the new life Jesus wants to pass them, the text says that he still does heal a few people. Even Nazareth’s unbelief can’t halt God’s mission.

Now, don’t let anyone tell you that the hometown crowds’ rejection doesn’t hurt. How many of us still carry a chip or two on our shoulders from our hometown crowd’s reaction when we tried to do something new and grow into our full potential! We still remember the disapproving expressions, putting us back in our place, telling us in no uncertain terms that any newness was strange and unacceptable.

How does Jesus react to this rejection? He’s astonished at the intensity, but he seems prepared for it. It doesn’t throw him off his game. In fact, it seems to energize him to engage a new tactic. He expands the mission to neighboring villages by sending out his chosen twelve disciples, empowering them to proclaim the good news and cast out unclean spirits.

The instructions he gives his offensive team are remarkable, the opposite of “defensive” in every way. Take nothing for the journey, he tells them, no bread and no money; wear sandals and two tunics and only carry a walking stick.

These instructions speak not only to the urgency of the mission but to the heart of it: availability and vulnerability. Following Jesus’ directions, the disciples are totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers. They show up to each village as people in need, not as those with something obvious to give.

Compare this mode to the posture we often assume in our own mission efforts! Ever resistant to place ourselves in another’s debt, we try to show up in the superior position, doling out what we think people need.

Instead, Jesus teaches us to meet others in the vulnerability and availability which are the substance of loving relationships. Without vulnerability and availability, human beings cannot possibly connect in love, and any efforts at mercy and healing which are not based in love will be short-lived at best. Love is the transformative power of God.

Author Brene Brown’s social research confirms the wisdom of Jesus’ instructions. Every leader on a mission faces fear, she writes.

“The real barrier to daring leadership is our armor—the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing and able to rumble with vulnerability…You can’t fully grow and contribute behind armor.”

from Dare to Lead

Brown further notes, “Daring is not saying ‘I’m willing to risk failure.’ Daring is saying, ‘I know I will eventually fail, and I’m still all in.’”[i]

Jesus prepares his disciples to dare vulnerability in the face of resistance and rejection. When his hometown rejected him, his disciples witnessed his refusal to armor up in defensiveness.  Nor did Jesus try to impose his views by force. Leaving Nazareth, perhaps Jesus did what he now instructs them to do: just shake off the dust of your feet from any town that refuses to welcome or hear you out. A small and nonviolent action, it bears witness to a devastating lack of hospitality while allowing the disciples to release rejection, rather than retaliate for it.[ii]

Following these instructions, the disciples are successful in their mission to the extent that King Herod hears about it. This gives Mark an opportunity to insert a sordid bit of history, about how Herod beheaded John as a result of a grandiose oath sworn to his (illegal) step-daughterin front of his courtiers.

What are we to make of this awful story? I hate to say it, but I think Herod’s story is where the text comes home to us in our world today. We are not kings and queens, per se, but we are largely people of privilege. Brene Brown, again, defines privilege as the ability to avoid uncomfortable conversations and situations. We can and often do choose to do just that.

So we have something in common with Herod, who is caught in the snare of indecision.  He likes his worldly pleasures, his parties and dancing girls. At the same time, he’s drawn to John the Baptist. He likes listening to John, though he finds John’s teaching perplexing. Maybe some part of Herod longs to be a righteous Jewish king, as John exhorts him.

But Herod’s new wife, Herodias, hates John, who has spoken against their marriage. She wants to silence him. When her dancing daughter requests John’s head on a platter, the moment of decision arrives for Herod. Will he stand up for John, though it means losing face before his guests? Or will he defend his ego in the eyes of these peers with the horrible death of an innocent man?

Herod makes the defensive choice, the ego choice, all too common for people in high places. We’ve so often seen leaders choose political expediency over righteousness– did we ever expect Herod to seriously consider another option?

Too often, our own disappointment with corrupt politicians leads us to armor ourselves against truly daring leadership. Why should we dare courageous choices, if those who claim authority over us refuse to do so? Instead, we occupy ourselves with shaming and blaming, rather than summoning our own courage to risk leading others with integrity.

The truth is, we face Herod’s choice every single day: will we choose the righteousness of God’s will and ways, entering into Jesus’ offensive vulnerability, or will we play the defensive game, armoring ourselves against failure, but also connection and transformation?

Jesus’ way offends us because it’s not an “if” but a “when”: his daring leadership will bring us face to face with failure, heartbreak, suffering, and death. Jesus will ask us to move beyond our comfort zone, to go without our usual defenses, and to meet the world without armor, with no padding aside from our trust in Christ’s peace which passes understanding.

Even so, the scriptures testify that Jesus offers the only life which is, truly, life: the kingdom of God life, in which we manifest divine grace and glory as we learn from Jesus the capacity to meet whatever resistance we encounter. In fact, Jesus shows us how to use resistance, to let it be transformed into a meeting place where we encounter God and ourselves face to face, receiving and expressing God’s love all the more profoundly.

“What stands in the way becomes the way,” second-century Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said. Jesus lived this principle to the fullest, all the way through death on a Roman cross and beyond, into the resurrection life, God’s decisive triumph over humanity’s deathly choices.

The good news, teammates of Jesus, is that he’s not only a great quarterback: Jesus is the game itself!

Jesus Christ is God’s purpose, presence, and power, God’s Word made flesh. Jesus not only leads us but empowers us to accomplish our essential part in his mission through the Holy Spirit he gives us. Through Jesus, we partner with God!

Isn’t it amazing that God trusts us so much as to toss the ball into our hands that we may run it in for the ultimate score? Though we often fumble and drop the pass, in Jesus Christ, God keeps lobbing extravagant grace encouraging us to receive it and run long, to carry Christ’s mission as far as we can, no matter what resistance we face. 

This may be where the football metaphor breaks down, however.  Unlike spectacular touchdown passes, the actions of God’s people often don’t grab headlines. Mostly, we carry grace forward quietly, in daily kindness to people, animals, and the earth, in small gestures which gently and patiently heal those around us. We love by seeing a need and stopping to lend a hand; by taking the time to listen to a someone’s sad story; by giving the benefit of the doubt to those whose ideas differ from ours, by refusing to avoid uncomfortable conversations even as we greet our opponents with Christ’s peace.

How many times a day do you receive these graces? How many times a day do you carry them forward? Each tiny decision we make to follow where Jesus leads has unaccountable ripples, my friends. These small actions keep advancing the long game of God’s mercy, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year by year, to the glory of Christ’s kingdom fully come.

Alleluia! Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, 12, 14,19.

[ii] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 214.

What Have You To Do With Us, Jesus?

Sermon by Laura, 1.26.20: Mark 5:1-20

Okay, folks, get your workout clothes on and get ready to sweat! You thought you were coming to a Presbyterian worship service, “decently and in order” with two liturgical movements only—stand up and sit down—but, oh no, we’re shaking things up; today we’re gonna exorcise some demons!

Ugh, I know, bad joke. Blame Keith; I stole it from him. The exercise-exorcise pun works well, though, for the Gospel of Mark. It’s a high energy book, with lots of movement and lots of crowds. Read the whole book in one sitting, and notice how it seems Jesus is always running from one crowd to the next, teaching, healing, creating controversy, exorcising demons, and eventually being crucified—at the word of a crowd—for these efforts.

And throughout Mark’s gospel, we feel the str-e-t-ch of dynamic tension between Jesus’ true identity and the perceptions of the crowds. Whether they are anonymous gatherings of random bystanders listening to Jesus teach, the smaller “crowd” of religious authorities, or Jesus’ own family, each group of people sorts themselves in relation to Jesus according to whatever “groupthink” influences their assumptions.

Today’s story is circled about by various “crowds.” To begin with, there’s Jesus and his disciples. They are Jews, but they are arriving “on the other side” of the Sea of Galilee. When they step ashore, they are in Gentile territory. As Dorothy says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The second “crowd” in this story is harder to see, when a lone man runs from the tombs to meet Jesus. This man has the honor of being one of the best-described characters in all the gospels. Mark—notoriously brief on details—actually spends three and a half verses describing his deplorable state. Utterly outcast, he rattles around in a graveyard, clanking the chains his own people have used to restrain him, howling and beating himself with stones.

He seems to be alone, but he gives Jesus a name which evokes a particular crowd’s presence: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” For Mark’s audience, this word, Legion, did not merely suggest a multiplicity of entities. It was a political word, naming the premier weapon Rome used to conquer and enforce their occupation. Legions were groups of six thousand warriors securing the empire’s rule with deadly force. The power dominating this man’s home country and the “troop of phantom invaders” dominating his humanity are linked.[1] His personal has been utterly overrun by the political.

How many of us can identify with that, though the 2020 election year has hardly begun! We can also identify with feeling overrun in our heads with too many voices expressing their opinions. We should be so lucky in our day to only contend with 6000 extra voices in our heads—for us, it’s more like a Google.[2] Plug any topic into the internet search engine, and you’ll have 32,000 results or more in half a second.

And each of those voices represents, in its own way, a crowd—a group of people with an agenda, furthering their interests. So we struggle to determine which groups truly represent ours! We are always wondering, what’s real news and what’s fake, who is telling the truth and who is lying, who can we trust to have our best interests at heart, and who is trying to sell us out for their own gain.

No wonder we often find it easier to sort ourselves into likeminded groups and go along with a party line. It’s understandable that we seek belonging among groups which make us feel most comfortable, but there’s a danger in doing so. Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, writes,

“As people seek out the social settings they prefer…the nation grows more politically segregated…and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogenous groups…”[3]

Bishop wrote this statement in 2009, but the dynamic of polarization has only grown stronger. At the extreme, we not only polarize but demonize, dehumanizing those who dissent or disagree with our favored group. And please do not assume I’m favoring one kind of faction over another in saying this! All groups have this temptation.

It turns out to be a demon destroying us from within. In Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown writes, “The paradox is that we all love the ready-made filing system…but we resent it when we’re the ones getting filed away.” She reports that “[a]t the same time sorting is on the rise, so is loneliness.”[4]

Brown’s research shows that a sense of the “true belonging” we desire actually not from sorting ourselves into likeminded groups, but from recognizing our shared humanity, regardless of differences we perceive, celebrating that we are “inextricably connected” to each other by a loving and compassionate power greater than any of us.

Among all the strange moments of today’s scripture, I believe there is this invitation for us to exorcise the sorting demon as we exercise our faith; to learn to see as Jesus sees and value as Jesus values, our personhood, our common humanity, beneath and beyond all our differences.

In today’s story, the local people seem to have “filed away” this demon-possessed man. They’ve given up trying to see the man beneath the demonic behavior, and hopeless to transform his plight, they isolated and bound him among the dead.

But from first to last, Jesus never loses sight of his humanity. [5] Even before the possessed man bows at Jesus’ feet, Jesus perceives the cause of his suffering, distinguishes the demon from the demonized man, and calls out the evil: “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

The demon, Legion—or is it the man inside—responds with a question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The question acknowledges Jesus’ authority even as it resists; it suggests both hope and fear.

So, too, goes the exercise of our faith, as we follow Jesus across group boundaries. For human beings don’t always welcome the gaze which perceives our common humanity. The groups we settle into are often masks which hide our vulnerability. We both hope and fear, long for and resist being seen us as we are, unmasked as frightened broken children, barely aware of yet also ashamed of the things which grip and control us against our best intentions.

Jesus never loses sight of our common humanity. Gazing upon each one of us with tender compassion, he asks us to name the demons that plague us: the addictions, the mental illnesses, the pain of whatever us-or-them groupthink, has convinced us we are unclean and unworthy of true belonging. Naming these powers in the light of day, saying aloud what seemed unspeakable, the demons are banished, and we are set free, in our vulnerability, of everything that kept us bound and separate from each other.

What have you to do with me, Jesus? Only everything.

Jesus never loses sight of our common humanity, and what’s more, Jesus, Son of the Most High God, joins us fully within it. As N.T. Wright reminds us,

“At the climax of Mark’s story, Jesus himself will end up naked, isolated, outside the town among the tombs, shouting incomprehensible things as he is torn apart on the cross by the standard Roman torture…And that, Mark is saying, will be how the demons are dealt with. That is how healing takes place. Jesus is coming to share the plight of the people, to let the enemy do its worst to him, to take the full force of evil on himself and let others go free.”

Jesus shares our common humanity, and we are called to take strength from his solidarity with us, to risk crossing to the other side and sharing what he has done for us.

This story ends with the man calm, clothed, and in his right mind. Though he begs to go with Jesus, he is sent back instead to his own people. “Go home to your friends, and tell them what the Lord has done, what mercy he’s shown you.”

This is, for the man, just as risky as crossing to the other side. Can you imagine the courage it takes to return to people who had ostracized and restrained you? To the people looking with fear upon the terrifying miracle of your salvation?

Yet the text says he goes and proclaims what Jesus has done for him, Jesus who is to him now the Lord. Everyone was amazed.

What have you to do with me, Jesus? You are my Lord and Savior, seeing me and delivering me, standing beside me in my vulnerability that I may face all others with true belonging in you, the common humanity by which you join me to God.

To God be the glory! Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everybody, 56.

[2] Thanks, Keith.

[3] As quoted in Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 47.

[4] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness, 50-51.

[5] M. Jan Holton, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, 148.

Seed Catalog: 1.19.2020

Sermon by Keith on Mark 4:1-34

There is something wrong that happens every year about this time.  No, I’m not talking about the snow and colder temps.  I actually really like this time of year when life slows down and a good book and hot cup of coffee make for a nice day.  But here is the problem: As I stand there looking out the window at the blanket of snow across the backyard with that cup of coffee in hand, I hear the mail get delivered into our mailbox.  I go grab it, and inside is a seed catalog or two. 

How many of you have been getting seed catalogs lately?  Now, after having perused the catalogs a couple of times, when I stand at the window, the calm of winter isn’t there anymore.  My mind has rushed to spring and potential of the gardens.  Which raised bed will I plant the green beans this year?  What kind of green beans will I plant?  I wonder what the kids will want to plant in their bed this year?  As I stare out the window, I no longer see just drifts of snow, I can see in my mind new shoots of growth coming up through the snow.  I see abundance!  The potential for new growth takes root right if front of my eyes.

Maybe that’s what Jesus wants us to see in these parables about seeds and the kingdom of God.  If you look hard enough, maybe you can see the Kingdom of God taking root in places and ways that you never would have expected, even in the most extreme and outlandish conditions.   

There are lots of definitions about parables, but a new one I came across was from CH Dodd.  He suggests that parables were used to lead listeners from a concrete and common experience into an uncertain and mysterious reflection that result in new insights.  That’s what we see going on in the parable of the sower.  There are the birds, rocks, and the scorching sun that everyone had known and experienced.  There is the planting of that year’s crop.  But every time I’ve ever read these words, I have a bunch of questions for Jesus, like, “What’s wrong with this guy?  Why is he throwing valuable seeds on the rocks and among the weeds?”

Then I have to remember that Jesus sometimes takes the ordinary to the extreme to make a point about God and about ourselves.  Everyone listening to his words would know how the farmer would plant his seeds; probably many of them had done it themselves.  The farmer would walk in the field, taking handfuls of seeds, and broadcasting them out upon the soil before plowing.  The irony of this parable is Jesus has the sower casting seeds in places that no prudent sower would ever cast his seeds.  It would be like trying to plant a wheat field on the back side of Mt. Emily.  You just don’t do that.  You plant down in the valley, where the ground is level and fertile and it is easy to water. So the question that comes up is what is the purpose of this parable that takes planting seeds to an extreme? 

The reference at the end of the parable to an incredible, extraordinary yield is clearly an encouraging message.  And those references to those seed eating birds, the rocks, and the scorching sun all suggest opposition to what the sower is doing.  There is no suggestion that the qualities of the seeds vary.  The seed that is cast on the rock has the same potential as that cast on the good soil.  It is the reception of the seeds that varies. 

The parable describes both the generosity of the sower in sowing seeds and difficulties encountered by the seeds.  The reception of the seeds is where the problems occur.  No wonder Jesus ends this parable with the exhortation to hear, to listen and be receptive soil.

For me, there are many levels of good news to be harvested in these seed parables.  What’s God up to?  God is up to his usual graciousness that goes beyond our expectations.  God is willing to plant his kingdom here, there, and everywhere with the hope that it grows into something big and marvelous.  The Kingdom of God is for everyone, everywhere.  God is the sower who cannot be bound by the limits of human activity or imagination.  We cannot raise a garden bed around God’s actions. 

Furthermore, the seeds of God’s gracious action spread beyond where we would expect them to be, even beyond where we might wish them to be.  We may want to limit the sowing of the seeds into just certain fields belonging to certain landowners, but the scattered seeds from God’s arm spill out beyond any limits we can place on God.

But there must be a response.  This is where we come in.  All the seeds that God has thrown hither and yon have the potential to grow huge and spread like the mustard seed and produce beyond our imagination. 

The problem isn’t the seed or the sower.  I could never say or believe that God wastes his love and grace on someone who isn’t receptive to that love and grace.  Even if people turn and reject the Sower, God just keeps lobbing that love and grace upon them.  God can’t help it.  That’s the very nature of God.  And it is even a gift of God when our very lives hear God’s call to discipleship, growth, readiness, and receptivity which call to us from this parable.  

There are mysterious connections between God’s actions and our actions, between God’s initiative and our obedient response.  Martin Luther, the Reformer, once said that the learned tongue, the ready ear, and the prepared heart are all related.  All are necessary for fruitful discipleship.  Without a learned tongue, discipleship is misdirected.  Without a ready ear, discipleship is paralyzed.  Without a prepared heart, discipleship is resisted.

Clearly, worship, study, prayer, and fellowship are part of that life of discipleship that helps us grow and flourish is ways we may not understand, but there is also an invitation in this parable to walk with God and sow in places that we might never expect a response to take place.  We share God’s love and grace with people whom we might think of as rigid and unreceptive.  We go places that might seem unproductive not because of our labor, but of the potential of the kingdom of God to take root and flourish. 

This weekend, we remember the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, who continued to go places with a message of equality that is promised to all of humanity that got him hosed, beaten, and attacked.  He could have stayed in his home church preaching about it, but he went out to some of the thorniest, hardest places in the south and cast seeds of God’s love and hope until a whole country responded. 

We, too, don’t say it is wrong to share the good news with that group because they look or act or vote differently, or are hard, crusty, or just too stubborn to receive what God wants to give them.  We need new eyes, eyes of the Sower who is willing to throw kingdom seeds everywhere. 

We don’t look out and see hard, rocky ground or hungry birds or thorny ground anymore.   We know the power and potential that is hidden away in the seeds of God’s grace and love that have been planted in us and that we want, no, we have to share with others.  Seeing with the sower’s eyes changes how we view the world.  It changes our actions and our hope. 

There are no longer lost causes, but only abundant possibilities.  We see the Kingdom of God growing and expanding in truly unexpected and amazing ways.  Amen.

Stand Up and Walk Wet

Sermon by Laura 1.12.20 Baptism of the Lord, Narrative Lectionary Year 2. Mark 1:4-11, 2:1-12

Okay, Language Arts 101 time. Who can tell me what a “metaphor” is? Raise your hands…(take an answer or two). Yes! A metaphor is a figure of speech, a combination of words, in which one thing is compared to another.

“Up” and “Down” are primary metaphors; they are so basic to our thinking that we don’t even realize we are using them metaphorically. Literally, they are names for how we orient ourselves, as creatures subject to gravity, right?  Whatever is above me is, directionally, “up,” whatever is below me is “down.”

But from there, they have accrued all sorts of other resonances. For example, we use them to describe emotional states: “I’m feeling up” means we are happy; “I’m feeling down” means we are sad. Or we use them to describe power states: we “one-up” to gain advantage over others; we “put-down” to diminish another.

We even give these words spiritual significance. “Going up” is good—it’s where we picture heaven, the location of an afterlife of reward. “Going down?” Not so good.  It’s where we picture the location of afterlife punishment. Through our metaphorical minds, “up” and “down” become a value judgment, even a moral rule. We Christians strive to be upright persons, growing up in stature to become more like the God we imagine dwells up there somewhere, far above the dirty, messy, ordinary, earth down here below. 

So today’s scriptures may feel disorienting: as they both demonstrate “[s]ometimes Jesus is not above us, but below.”[1]

First, the story of Jesus’ baptism. Mark’s gospel pictures the masses of people, both town and country folks, drawn to the River Jordan and the hope John the Baptizer offers.

Talk about metaphors! The ritual of baptism is full of them. Baptism is a bath, cleansing us for a new kind of life. Or, more dangerously: baptism is a flood, drowning the ways of sin and death. And one more: baptism is crossing over from the land of slavery to the Promised Land.

These metaphor-images and more are what make this sign-act so significant as a marker of the life-transformation which comes with repentance.  And Jesus shows up among the crowds to receive this life-transforming treatment. In Matthew’s version of this story, an interchange between John and Jesus suggests that Jesus doesn’t actually need it. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” says John. Yet Jesus insists it’s the right thing to do. His willing participation in this ritual, plunging him below the waters, powerfully reveals the fullness of God’s identification and solidarity with humanity in the incarnation.

Jesus comes up out of those waters to see the heavens torn open, the Spirit-dove coming down, and the voice of affirmation ringing out, saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” The voice affirms Jesus’ willingness to go below, to take his place down here alongside every sin-sick human being longing for salvation. At the same time, it also verifies Jesus’ intimate kinship with the heavens above; it claims Jesus’ intimacy with the loving God as the Ground of Being on which Jesus takes his stand, to carry out the vocation of God’s Beloved:  Son of God, Son of Humanity, closing the gap between up and down, above and below, in everything he is and does.

The second story is conditioned by the first. After his baptism, Jesus begins his astonishing ministry. Those who meet him sense the remarkable depth of his authority as he teaches, heals and casts out demons. Unclean spirits obey him, disciples leave everything to follow him, and lepers are made clean by his decisive touch.

So, when, after his first ministry tour, Jesus returns to his home in Capernaum, he’s become a sort of celebrity. Such a crowd of people fills his house, that no one else can move or enter in. They press in to hear as Jesus speaks the word to them. He probably comes back to his favorite theme: “God’s kingdom’s come near. Repent, and believe the good news!”

But suddenly, there’s something unexpected. Dust and dirt begin to fall on their faces. The mud and thatch above come apart, and a gaping hole is torn in the roof.

Can you imagine if that happened here in this house on a Sunday morning? What if you looked up to see the ceiling torn open by some guys who then lower down a body on a stretcher and lay it gently at the preacher’s feet?[2]

If we’re not sure what we would do, we might want to consider that it’s the kind of thing that happens in Jesus’ presence! And Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. As one preacher notes, Jesus is like a great jazz musician; he knows how to improvise!

He knows a sacramental moment when he sees it, as the thing he’s been preaching is made manifest for all to see. Right here in that moment, above becomes below, the gap between up and down closes, and the kingdom comes near, in the act of four bold friends who believe the good news and turn to Jesus believing he can make their companion well. Just imagine what could happen if we trusted in Jesus like that! 

Now, I’d never heard it before reading Mark for Everyone, but scholar N.T. Wright suggests that “Jesus himself was the unlucky householder who had his roof ruined that day.” From there, Wright pictures Jesus down below with the crowd in the mess these men have made of his home, gazing at them and at the sick friend they’ve worked so hard to bring into his presence. What can Jesus do but smile and wryly say, “Son, your sins are forgiven”[3]?

I like that. It’s always bugged me how, in this story, Jesus’ first response is to talk about sins. So, Wright’s picture of this scene makes Jesus’ response seem a little less peculiar. Maybe Jesus’ forgiveness here is a direct response to the mess they’ve just made of his own house! Because otherwise, this guy clearly needs physical healing, and Jesus goes instead to forgiveness?

But I’ve also come to appreciate Mark’s brilliant, jarring way of telling these stories. It’s not what we have expected. It wakes us up and provokes our questions. What does forgiveness have to do with healing? And does Jesus have the authority to forgive sins?

At any rate, Jesus’ response sends the scribes into a tizzy. To them, his words are blasphemy. He seems to be claiming the capacity to forgive sins, something that is the sole privilege of God. Those scribes were the devoted church-people of their day, who put a lot into figuring out how to do religion right, how to relate to the God up there, high above, who has no equals.

That’s how they understood it, as we often do: God was not down here but up there. The Holy of Holies in the Temple represented how separate God’s presence was from their daily lives. Only the high priest could enter it once a year to atone for his people’s sins; forgiveness came through a sacrifice which sent those sins away.[4]

But in these stories, Jesus turns it all upside down. A hole is torn in the heavens; a hole is made in the roof. And lo and behold, it turns out that God is not up there, God is down here, right here with us in this mess we’ve made of his house, forgiving us our sins and healing us.

And just as up and down come together in Jesus, in him we also find both healing and reconciliation. Both the physical and relational dimensions of our lives are addressed in Jesus; sin and illness both lose their power, as Jesus breaks down whatever walls alienate us from God and one another.[5]  

Maybe that’s Jesus’ point when he asks, “Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Stand up, take your mat, and walk?” This is Jesus in trickster-mode, and the answer to his question, is, simply, “Yes.” Yes, Jesus, heal me and forgive me, Yes, Jesus, help me stand up, take my mat, and walk in your ways. Yes.

That’s the answer the paralytic and his friends get, anyway, though it leaves the scribesscratching their heads in confusion. The sick man on the mat experiences total transformation. From an inert, passive body, completely dependent upon others, he is, in a sense, resurrected. The phrase “stand up” is here used to translate the Greek verb which means “rise,” the same verb which later describes Jesus’ own resurrection from death to life. “Stand up, take your mat, and go home,” Jesus tells him, and the once-passive man rises to become an active agent in his own life.

His transformation parallels ours, as our lives are immersed in the pattern of Jesus. Even as we are lowered down, following Jesus into baptism’s waters, the roof of the heavens is torn open for us, too. The Holy Spirit comes down to us, as God sees us as we are in Jesus, and names us Beloved Children,  as Jesus sees us lowered down through the roof into his presence and says, “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

When we come up out of the waters, we too stand up into our vocation as active agents of God’s kingdom, and the ground on which we take our stand is God’s love for us and God’s delight in us, God’s beloved children.

I’m mixing up all these metaphors, my friends, because God is above us and below us, within us and among us, around us and moving through us. On Baptism Sunday, receive the good news:

You are immersed in Christ, in the depths of God’s love and you have risen to new life: So stand up, take up your mat, and walk, gladly proclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” Alleluia, and Amen.

[1] https://thelisteninghermit.com/2012/02/14/digging-down-to-healthy-understanding/

[2] I appreciate and am mimicking Rev. Reggie Weaver’s description of this scene: https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf2003215/when_the_roof_crumbles

[3] N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 16.

[4] https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf2003215/when_the_roof_crumbles

[5] Annette Weissenrieder, Exegetical Perspective in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, 61.