Saturday, February 28, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Where did you get to know me?" So says Nathanael to Jesus when they first meet. He is startled when Jesus seems to already know something about him. I suppose that this story is a way for John's gospel to impress us with Jesus' divinity, his ability to observe Nathanael as only God could do. But I am captivated by Nathanael's question.

The desire to connect with God is a desire to know and to be known. I long to know God better, and the most frustrating faith moments for me are when God's seems distant and removed. But I often try to keep part of myself from God. To be fully known is to be completely vulnerable. Perhaps that is why Nathanael's question grabs me so. Perhaps I imagine him to be frightened at the prospect that this Jesus can see into him so easily.

Most of us keep secrets even from those who know us best. It is difficult to trust someone so fully that we can be totally vulnerable to them. Perhaps a part of faith is learning to trust God to the point that being fully known doesn't seem frightening.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" So says John the Baptist in today's gospel reading. Presumably these were joyful words, for when the Baptist repeats them to some of his followers on the next day, those followers leave John and go with Jesus. They have found something greater.

As we enter in the the season of Lent, I can't help but ponder the excitement those first disciples must have felt when they heard, "Here is the Lamb of God!" And then I contrast this with the austerity often associated with Lent.

No doubt "giving up" something can be a way of drawing closer to God. But often Lent seems to be dour for dour's sake. I wonder, wouldn't it be much better if, rather than thinking about what to "give up," we thought about what practices, activities, or changes in our lives might help us hear afresh the good news that "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday audio

Ash Wednesday Meditation

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21)


James Sledge February 25, 2009 - Ash Wednesday

I realize that this is not the case for some of you here tonight, but for me, the Great Depression is something I know only from the history books. It’s one of a long list of things that occurred somewhere way back in the recesses of time, when things were very different, nothing like they are today.

Now despite pithy sayings such as “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” it is easy to think that certain things have been permanently relegated to the dustbin of history. Many of us probably assume that modern medicine means there will never again be anything on like the Black Death that swept across Europe in the Middle Ages. It is inconceivable that our nation could ever again base a significant portion of its economy on slave labor, or that we could ever again enshrine into our constitution that African Americans have a value equal to three fifths of a European American. Such things are relics of the past.

And when I took history in my school days, I learned that events like the Great Depression were relics of the past. Thanks to government regulation of the market, FDIC to protect people’s money in the bank, and a whole host of government programs forming a substantial, social safety-net, scenes such as those described in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath simply could not be repeated. Yes there will be economic ups and downs, but never anything like that again. And then came our current economic meltdown.

Now I’m not saying that we’re doing to have another Great Depression. I certainly hope and pray that won’t happen. But some economists have said that it could happen, that it is a real possibility. I tend not to believe such dire predictions, but that may be simply because of my own optimism, or maybe even because of my deeply ingrained notions that such a thing could never happen again.

It’s funny; we tend to snicker at the certainties of past generations while we imagine that our own certainties are valid. As a society, we think ourselves smart enough, advanced enough, sophisticated enough that we aren’t like people from history who thought World War I was the “war to end all wars.” We can chuckle at predictions from the less than 200 years ago suggesting that if humans ever invented a vehicle going much over 40 miles an hour, our bodies would come apart under the stress of such a thing. We know better. Our predictions would never be so foolish.

To varying degrees, most of us buy into the myth of progress. Now when I say the myth of progress I don’t mean that there haven’t been real advances in the course of history. The medical, technological, and political advances of history are very real. Generally speaking, our lives are considerably better for such progress. But the myth of progress falsely believes that such advances will inevitably lead to a day when we solve all problems and insure that life goes well for everyone. The myth of progress essentially believes that human beings have limitless capacity, and when those capacities have reached their full potential, all will be right with the world.

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who had an interesting definition of sin. He said that sin was distortion. Now this professor’s field was pastoral care, the practical discipline of helping, caring for, and counseling people as they deal with difficulties or transitions in their lives. This professor said that human beings are created with significant and wonderful capacities to do many things. But they are also created with significant limitations. In his words, humans are both “gifted” and “finite.” But sin distorts appropriate knowledge of who we are. Some individuals fall into the distortion of thinking they are worthless and capable of little. But as societies, and especially American society, we tend to fall into the distortion or sin of denying our limits, our finite nature.

And so bankers and financiers can fall prey to their own foolish beliefs that they have the markets figured out and managed to the point that there is no where to go but up. People can lose their life savings because of their faith that certain companies are too big, too well run, too carefully diversified to ever go bust. And politicians of all stripes can cling to the certainty that their ideology can solve all the nation’s ills.

And now we once again enter the season of Lent. As we do, we rehearse an ancient liturgy. As we receive the mark of ashes as we hear once more the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a call to remember who we truly are, creatures, creatures with tremendous gifts but with very real limitations. It is a call to remember that God alone is God, and we are not, contrary to what any myth of progress might claim.

God alone is God, and we are God’s creatures. No progress, no advance, no technological achievement, no political program will ever change this, and in a way, both scripture readings for this evening call us to remember this. The gospel reading, a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, warns people about using religion to achieve that they want. In these teachings, Jesus calls us to align our hearts, our lives, with God.

And the reading from Joel is particularly stark in warning people to “return to Yahweh.” Now some may hear these verses in formulaic, mechanical fashion. “Go to church, be moral, and good things will happen.” But I understand these verses to be much more basic, calling us to remember who we are, calling us to return to true relationship with God as creatures –wonderful, gifted, and beloved creatures, but finite, limited creatures – dependent on our Creator, dependent on God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy.

“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

I've always liked the book of Jonah, the second half of which is today's Old Testament reading. The ending of it strikes me as funny, when God chastises Jonah's temper tantrum over the mercy shown Nineveh. "And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" And also many animals? What an odd ending. But given that Nineveh's king made the animals fast along with the people, I suppose that God has heard their cries as well.

More interesting to me is what happens when Jonah has done his prophetic duty, in admittedly minimalist fashion. The king orders all people and animals to fast and put on sackcloth, saying, "Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." And God does turn from that anger. "When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it."

God here acts in ways I don't often attribute to God. God changes God's own mind. Actually, God "repents." I did a study on Jonah not too long ago and I recall that the Ninevite king's hope that God would "change his mind" is literally a hope that God would "repent," and God does "repent" I suppose Bible translators just can't bring themselves to write "God repented."

Christian theology has usually pictured God as unchanging and immovable. But here the Bible explicitly speaks of God turning and repenting. Now I would be a little troubled by an image of a capricious and wavering God whose behavior might change on a whim. But don't relationships require at least a little dynamism, a little sense that each partner in the relationship responds and reacts to the other? And I wonder if my relationship with God wouldn't be more fulfilling, if I thought of that relationship in more dynamic terms.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Last week a CNBC reporter screamed on the Chicago trading floor that he did not want his money going to bail out irresponsible homeowners for their stupid mistakes. Speaking of the same situation, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, "The greedy idiots may be greedy idiots, but they are our countrymen. And at some level, we’re all in this together." (NY Times, Feb. 19, 2009) "I" versus "We." We always live with some tensions between the self and the group, but Americans often seem more enamored with the self than the group. We're rugged individualists, self-made men and women, the products of our choices and decisions. Even when we claim a "We," it is often an individual choice to belong to a group or movement.

The reading from Deuteronomy 6:16-25 speaks of a different sort of "We." The people of Israel are told to respond this way when their children ask questions about the commandments and statutes given by God in the wilderness. "We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." Jews still repeat these words today. "We were Pharaoh's slaves..."

"I" was never one of Pharaoh's slaves, and neither were any of those who continue to repeat these words, at least not in any literal sense. Yet identity as the people of God comes from claiming the "We" God gives to us.

Jesus says that if wish to be his followers, we must deny ourselves. (Mark 8:34) I wonder if this might be connected to becoming part of God's "We."

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Deuteronomy 6:1-15 speaks of God's commandments and calls Israel to "Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." When I read these words, I was immediately taken back to the Sunday School class taught yesterday by Prof. Brad Binau. He talked about the historical situation at the time of the prophet Elijah, how as Israel became settled farmers and herders in the land there was a tendency to forget God in the day to day.

Dr. Binau noted that this God Yahweh is a wonderful God in a big crisis, when you need to win a war or escape from slavery. But in the more mundane living of daily life, the worries about rain and crop growth, other local gods seem to be the way to go. Israel maintained their regular worship of Yahweh, but turned to the local customs and rites in order to ensure the crops and herds. Dr. Binau also noted that we often live in much the same way, worshiping God on Sunday but serving other "gods" the rest of the week.

I know that I tend to look for God in the big and grand moments. I want visions, clarity about where our congregation should go, moments of deep and keen insight. But if God, and not other gods, is the God of moments big and small, perhaps I need to heed the words of Deuteronomy and recognize God at home and away, when lie down and get up. I need to keep God and God's ways somehow close to me at all times, even if I don't take to wearing a phylactery. And much of my spiritual endeavors over the past six months or so have focused on this, on becoming more aware of God's presence in the moments of the day.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Today's gospel reading is from Mark 12:35-44, and in it Jesus lauds the tiny offering of a poor widow over the large gifts of rich donors. Her two coins represented all she had.

These days many church pastors are worried about giving. Church budgets are tight. Two small coins don't help very much, and so we pastors love to have members with lots of money who can place large offerings in the plate.

I like to think of my own giving to the church as more than generous. I preach and follow the mandate of the tithe, or 10 percent. But the widow in the gospel reading quickly deflates any puffed-up feelings I might have. I am like the rich givers Jesus observes who give "out of their abundance." I quick look at the family check book or the credit card bills will easily confirm this. Mortgage payments on a nice home in a nice neighborhood, cable TV, internet service, and a long list of other items dwarf the occasional check written to the church.

I don't plan on selling the house or disconnecting the cable and giving the money to the church, but Jesus' words do make me think about my own list of priorities, about how someone could give "all she had to live on" while such a thought seems so ridiculous to me.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

What a strange combination of information is striking my brain at this moment. I'm sitting at the computer in my basement where I looked at the NY Times while I listened to the talking heads on CNBC scream about what the stock market is doing today. One was hollering that President Obama needed to inspire economic hope. As I write I can hear the White House press secretary respond to a question on that same topic. None of this provides the best sort of devotional moment to read the day's lectionary texts, but that's what I did. I get the daily lectionary emailed to me each day, and I opened that email with all these other things swirling around. (Click here to subscribe to the Daily Lectionary.)

At any rate, I opened the readings and found Isaiah 65:17-25 with its words of promise and hope. "For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight... Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent -- its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD." And I couldn't help wondering about what faith and the church should be saying about hope in times such as these.

Very often the promises of Scripture have been so "spiritualized" that they have little contact with day to day life. But surely the story of a Savior who comes healing the sick and feeding the hungry speaks of a God who cares about our lives, and who promises more that "pie in the sky by and by." I don't mean by this that God will send the market up. I'm not a "prosperity gospel" sort of guy. But I still feel that God wants to "save" us in ways that are tangible now. Perhaps I, and maybe some of you, need to be more attentive to God's showing us where true hope is to be found in our lives.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

In today's gospel reading from Mark 12:13-27, Jesus is asked questions by people hoping to trick or embarrass him. Predictably, Jesus has no trouble deflecting these attempts to ensnare him, but the answers Jesus gives may raise some interesting questions for us.

"Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Well that is plain enough, but then again the Bible says, "The earth is the LORD's and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it." (Ps. 24:1) So just what sort of neat division has Jesus actually provided for us here?

And while issues of Levirate marriage don't much concern modern day Christians, more than a few folks hoping to be rejoined with a spouse after death might not be overjoyed by Jesus' answer to the Sadducees. "For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." Now exactly what being "like angels in heaven" means is beyond me, but Jesus' words about the resurrection as an entirely different sort of existence seem to challenge many our our own quaint notions of life after death.

Obviously our own questions for Jesus aren't intended to do him harm like those in this reading, but that doesn't mean our questions cannot be self serving. Seeing how surprising Jesus' answers are to friend and foe alike, maybe our first question should be, "What are the right questions?"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

If, as I assume, faith is less a matter of believing certain things and more about encounter and relationship with God, then the words of the prophet in Isaiah 63:15-64:9 draw some interesting attention to the God side of this relationship. The prophet pleads to God, wanting to know why God has caused Israel to falter. "Why, O LORD, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?... But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed."

As the reading closes, the prophet seems to call on God to remember the fatherly relationship with Israel. This is a theme that occurs regularly in the Old Testament, the necessity of God remembering the covenant promises.

In faith's dark times, I can certainly feel as though God has forgotten me. It is frustrating when I am struggling to connect with God, to reach out to God, to listen for God, and God seems absent. But perhaps there is some consolation in this experience, for it reminds me that, finally, relationship with God, and even faith itself, is not something I achieve by my efforts. Rather it rests in God's remembering, in God's fealty to divine promises. And despite the frustrations of faith that I encounter all too often, everything I know about God convinces me that God's memory and God's fealty is a whole lot more reliable than mine will ever be.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Jesus isn't so meek and mild into today's reading from Mark 11:12-26. Jesus curses a fig tree and tosses the money changers and vendors out of the Temple. On top of all that, the priests and scribes "were afraid of him."

It's hard to imagine many people being frightened of Jesus in our day. I'm not advocating for a militant image of Jesus, but perhaps a little righteous indignation would be a good idea. Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr. provides a good modern example. He would not use violence, but the power structures he went up against were genuinely afraid of him.

I wonder what things in our congregations and in our individual lives make Jesus angry today. I wonder how we might be frightened if the living Christ moved through our temples.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sunday's Sermon Audio

Sunday's Sermon

Mark 1:40-45

Who Are We?

James Sledge February 15, 2009

I recently set up an account on Facebook. For those of you unfamiliar with Facebook, it is an internet-based, social networking site. It’s free and you can post pictures and information about yourself that can be seen by others who are your Facebook “friends.” People with Facebook accounts can send “friend requests” to others on Facebook, who must then confirm or ignore the request. It’s a great way to stay in contact with a lot of people at once. I have found lots of “friends” from my high school, seminary, and from members of Boulevard.

Naturally my Facebook profile says that I am a pastor. And when I become “friends” with people I haven’t seen in decades, it is interesting the assumptions they make about me because I am a pastor. Some assume that I must be conservative politically. Some assume that I want to become part of some anti-gay group. Some assume that I subscribe to a few simplistic, religious formulae and have no use for anyone who disagrees with me. And I’ve taken to posting a few videos or notes on my Facebook profile that skewer some of these religious stereotypes, that hopefully make it clear that I’m not what some folks assume.

But the issue of religious stereotyping doesn’t come up only with Facebook friends. I have a “real” friend who is not religious and who finds me something of an enigma. That is because she tends to assume that Christians are narrow-minded, unthinking sorts. Her image of a Christian is the polar opposite of an intellectual. And while I’m no intellectual, I have tendencies in that direction. Thus I don’t fit easily into the categories my friend has for cataloguing people.

This issue of Christian identity is not simply a matter of the stereotypes that others have about us. Our self understanding of what it means to be Christian is a crucial question. To be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to live into some sort of identity, some expectation of what Christians do or don’t do. And of course it is very difficult to talk about Christian identity without first wrestling with who we understand Jesus to be. Who we think Jesus was and is will surely impact what we think it means to follow him.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of different pictures of Jesus in circulation. Most of us tend to shape our image of Jesus so that he fits with our view of the world, so that he tends to like the things we like and dislike the things we dislike. Most folks tend to be fairly selective in deciding which scripture passages are the key to Jesus’ identity.

We Presbyterians are no less susceptible to these tendencies than others, but nonetheless, I think that one of the true gifts that Presbyterians offer to the Christian family is our desire truly to wrestle with scripture, to enter into it and appreciate all of its nuance and beauty, to seek to understand it on a fuller and deeper level. It is true that we are sometimes guilty of being too much “head Christians,” ignoring things such as mystery and spiritual experience. We do need to get better at attending to God with all of our being, but I hope we never stop loving God with all our mind. I hope we always utilize all that study and scholarship can teach us about the wonder and depth and subtlety and ambiguity and majesty of scripture.

If ever there was a scripture passage that warrants the full engagement of our minds, today’s reading from Mark is surely one of them. In these few verses we encounter a rich vein with endless treasures to be mined. There is so much going on here that we will miss if we treat these verses as little more than literal account of what happened as Jesus journeyed through Galilee.

On the surface, it is a simple enough story. Jesus heals a leper and tells him not to tell anyone, but to show himself to the priest and make the prescribed offering. But the man instead runs around telling everyone; end of story. Seems plain enough.

Yet Jesus encounters this leper only because he has gone out into the countryside where lepers are to be found. Jesus has taught and healed at the synagogue, has healed those who came to Simon’s house in Capernaum, but has then very intentionally, and over the apparent objections of disciples, left Capernaum to journey through the Galilean countryside.

There a leper approaches Jesus and raises the question of Jesus’ disposition toward the him. There is no question about what Jesus is able to do. The question is about what he chooses to do. Lepers were considered unclean. They couldn’t come to the synagogue or to the house. So how would Jesus react when this unclean leper came up to him out in the countryside?

Here’s where the story gets really interesting. Jesus not only chooses to heal the man, but he reaches out and touches him. He touches a leper, and so Jesus himself is made unclean. He takes on this man’s uncleanness when he touches him and heals him. And I read one commentator who suggested that the reason that Jesus could no longer go into town openly was not because of his popularity, but because he was now unclean.

Clearly Jesus is willing to break the taboos of his day, to reach out to those whom others shunned. Jesus has intentionally gone out into the country where lepers may be found and intentionally touched this leper, has become unclean like a leper himself. Clearly this Jesus is filled with compassion and love for people ostracized and cast out by polite society. And that likely accounts for the way this passage is translated when it says that Jesus was moved with pity when he met the leper. But there are ancient copies of Mark’s gospel where Jesus is not filled with pity but with anger, and many scholars believe this is likely what Mark originally wrote.

But why would Jesus be angry? Obviously not with the leper. Rather it seems that Jesus anger is aimed at the priest. In fact the command to the leper that he show himself to the priest is a more likely a testimony against them rather than the testimony to them we heard in our reading this morning. This testimony against them is not against Jews or Judaism but against religious authorities who ignore the weak and the broken and the outcasts, who relegate them to the fringes of society. It is a testimony against religious institutions that seek to make faith the purview of good, proper folk, testimony against all expressions of faith that fail to break down barriers, to reach out to hurting people that the world fears and shuns.

Jesus is angry at this all too common distortion of religion, but the freshly healed leper is too overjoyed for anger. He simply ignores Jesus’ command and begins to proclaim what Jesus has done for him to anyone who will listen. In the language of the New Testament, he becomes a preacher, sharing the good news. Mark’s gospel does not criticize the man. In fact, this is a pattern that repeats over and over in Mark. To be touched by Jesus’ power seems to carry with it a compulsion to preach and to minister to others. Almost no one Jesus heals ever remains silent, at least not until the very end of Mark’s gospel. On Easter morning, the first witnesses to the resurrection are commanded by Jesus to go and tell the others, but they say nothing because they are afraid.

And that brings us back full circle to post Easter people like us who say we know the risen Christ. Who are we because of this encounter? How does claiming we are Christian define us, and what corrections do we need to put on our Facebook profiles so that people don’t misunderstand what we mean?

Who are we as Christians? Consider who Christ is. He left the comfort and security of home and synagogue to go out into the world and share God’s love, God’s healing and transforming power. Consider a leper who was touched by God’s love, God’s healing and transforming power, and could not stop himself, even when Jesus told him to, from proclaiming the good news of what God had done for him.

Consider who Jesus was and is. Consider what it means to encounter God’s love through him. Perhaps then we can answer the question: Who are we?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

"Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child..." Today's reading from Mark 10:1-16 contains these words, and much has been written over the years about just what it means to be "as a little child." A lot of popular understandings--innocent, sweet, etc.-- are dismissed by most scholars.

I read these verses today after working on an Ash Wednesday meditation. This meditation recalls the Ash Wednesday liturgy, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." And it speaks of recognizing that God is God and we are creatures, of acknowledging and claiming of our limitations as creatures.

Children tend to realize that they are not in charge of things. We've all known some who thought they were. But most children are painfully aware of how much their lives are determined by other folks, from when to go to bed, when to get up, when to go to school, what to eat, and so on. But as we grow up, we take responsibility for many of these things, and for me, that often includes taking charge of the things that would be handled much better by God.

"Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child..."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Psalm 42 includes the line "I say to God, my rock, "Why have you forgotten me?" It also contains a response from the psalmist. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God."

It is hard to say how common faith struggles are among pastors, as we tend not to advertise our personal faith crises. But I suspect they are more prevalent that many would expect. However, we sometimes turn such moments into personal performance crises rather than faith ones. There must be some new program or skill that would fix things if mastered. Focused on performance, it is sometimes difficult to fit God into the conversation, either to cry out for help or to hope.

For me, I regularly need to step back from performance questions and engage in faith questions. Where do I truly put my hope? Can I trust in God, or is everything a matter of my skills and abilities, or the skills and abilities of other staff and volunteers?

First Timothy 1:8 speaks of "relying on the power of God." Rely on God's power? Rather than skills and abilities? Rather than the latest advice found in the latest book? Really?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Musings on the Daily Lectionary

Mark 9:30-41 is an interesting mix of seemingly unrelated events. But as I reflected on these verses, I was struck by Jesus' words on welcoming a child and on tolerating someone who invoked Jesus' name to heal. Both seem to show an open and welcoming pose toward others. Especially telling is the line, "Whoever is not against us is for us."

I tend to be someone who wants to do thing right, whether it be in following the rules and policies, or in getting the theology correct. But I wonder if my own preference of precision and correctness doesn't get in the way of seeing what God might be up to in someone who doesn't conform to my standards.

My prayer for the day is that God open my eyes to see beyond my own definitions of right, correct, etc. Let me see the unexpected and surprising ways that Christ's power is at work in the world.

Thoughts on next Sunday's sermon

Mark 1:40-45 seems to be a fairly straight forward story of Jesus healing a leper. But there is much more here than meets the eye. Much about who Jesus is is revealed in these few verses, showing in his presence in the countryside or wilderness, and his willingness to touch a leper and thus become unclean himself. In addition, there are ancient copies of Mark's gospel where Jesus is described as "angry" rather than "moved with pity" following the leper's request for healing. Exploring why Jesus might be angry may further reveal just who this Jesus is. And as questions about Jesus' identity are answered, deeper insights into our identities as his followers emerge.

Sunday's Sermon

Mark 1:29-39

Raised Up and Freed for Service

James Sledge February 8, 2009

Perhaps because of when I attended seminary, perhaps because of my own personal tendencies, or perhaps because of both, I tend to be very sensitive about gender issues in the Bible and the church. I go to great lengths to avoid using exclusively masculine terms for God since God is clearly neither male nor female. And I will take any opportunity that arises to point out the ways in which the Bible lifts up the role of women, from Deborah as prophet and judge in ancient Israel to women portrayed as disciples in Luke’s gospel to Priscilla depicted as the leader of a house church in Acts and in Paul’s letters. I point out that many Christian stereotypes about women arise more from the Bible’s use by the males who ran the church over the centuries rather than from what the Bible actually says.

Still, it does seem that the Bible was written entirely by men. And while these men were certainly inspired by the Holy Spirit, that doesn’t mean that their own prejudices and biases don’t show up in the words they wrote.

And so my first reaction when I read today’s gospel lesson was to cringe just a bit. We are in the opening chapter of Mark, where Jesus has been baptized by John, and has then begun his ministry of teaching and healing, and he has begun to call disciples, all male of course. And now Jesus returns from teaching and healing at the synagogue and arrives at Andrew and Simon’s house.

Inside this house, we meet Simon’s mother-in-law, although meet is probably too strong of a word. We learn nothing about her other than the fact that she is in bed with a fever. Now considering that Simon has just shown up with a bunch of male guests, this presents obvious problems in the male dominated society of that day. But fortunately Jesus heals her so that she can get up and wait on the guys. And that’s the last we hear of Simon’s mother-in-law. You can see why I cringed, can’t you?

Except that first impressions are not always correct. And when I gritted my teeth and began to listen to this passage, I discovered that Simon’s mother-in-law was not at all the stereotype I had supposed.

I think I missed this at first because I looked only at those few verses you heard me read a few moments ago. We often read the Bible this way, little snippets at a time. A lot of devotional materials are laid out this way. And when I’m thinking about a sermon, I tend to focus on the verses for that day. But in the process the reading sometimes gets separated from the larger story. That is certainly true today. Jesus going to Simon and Andrew’s house is part of a larger story that began earlier that Sabbath day when Jesus went to the synagogue where he taught and healed. And it is still the Sabbath day when Jesus arrives at the house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law.

Now just in case you’re not up on your Jewish Sabbath regulations, you weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus seems to be breaking those rules when he heals, both at the synagogue on now in our reading today. And Simon’s mother-in-law also seems to be breaking those rules when she hops up and begins to serve them.

This word “serve” is a pretty important one in the New Testament. It is the root of our word “deacon,” and it also means “to minister to.” More importantly, it is what Jesus says he comes to do, something his male disciples have a hard time understanding. Toward the end of Mark’s gospel, when these disciples are jockeying for position, wanting important places in God’s coming kingdom, Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must become your servant… For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Simon’s mother-in-law seems to realize what those male disciples are still struggling to understand at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; encountering the healing, transforming power and touch of Jesus naturally issues forth in service, in ministering to others. She does not wait for the Sabbath day to end. She begins to minister to Jesus right then and there.

Despite her oh so brief appearance in Mark’s gospel, Simon’s mother-in-law seems to embody a true understanding of the Christian life. She seems to understand it better than the crowds or Simon or the other disciples do. The setting of her healing—in the house—seems to illumine this further. In the first century, when Mark wrote his gospel, church and house were nearly synonymous. All churches were house churches. And so, in the story centered on a house, it is interesting to contrast the behavior of Simon’s mother-in-law with that of the crowds and with Simon himself.

The crowds rightly are fascinated with Jesus and recognize his power to heal. When the Sabbath has ended, they come in huge numbers to the door of the house, hoping to he will help them, but we hear nothing about how they respond to this encounter.

On the other hand, we do hear how Simon reacts when he discovers that Jesus has slipped away from the house in the darkness of early morning to pray. Our reading says that Simon hunted for him, but those words do not convey the full emotion of Mark’s original words. The word translated “hunted” is a word that implies hostility such as an army hunting for the enemy. Simon clearly is agitated at Jesus’ absence, as though he expects Jesus to be on call at the house. Simon seems to anticipate a church that possesses the power of Jesus, that is able to set up shop and wait for folks to come.

But Jesus has other ideas. The house, the church, is only a base of operations. Jesus’ ministry of preaching and healing must go out, must reach out to serve those in need. As Simon’s mother-in-law has already sensed, the good news of Jesus contains within it an impetus, a compulsion to share and serve, to reach out, to minister to others.

In the house, Jesus reaches out and takes the hand of a sick woman. He lifts her up, healing her, freeing her from that which confines her. And with no prodding from Jesus, and in violation of Sabbath regulations, she responds in loving service.

In the church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present to us in Word and Sacrament. In the waters of baptism we are washed and made as pure as the new fallen snow. At the table, Jesus once more reaches out to feed, to nourish, to grant us the grace that opens us to true life. And in the words of scripture, Jesus’ life giving Word is proclaimed once more. By this Word, Jesus reaches out and touches us with healing power, freeing us from all that confines us.

In Word and Sacrament, Jesus reaches out to each of us, takes us by the hand and lifts us up, saying, “You are mine. Be made whole.” Jesus raises us up by the hand and we are filled with his healing power, his power to make new and transform, his power to grant full communion and fellowship with God. Just as he did with Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus takes us by the hand, raising us up to full and abundant, new life.

By water and the Spirit, by Jesus’ touch, we are healed, made whole, transformed. By water and the Spirit, we are joined to Christ and he dwells in us. By water and the Spirit, we become the body of Christ, his living presence in the world. And all around us, people are longing for us to share his touch.