Sunday, February 26, 2012

Don't Get Testy with Me!

Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

A lawyer was sitting in her office late one night, when Satan appeared. The Devil told the lawyer: "I have a proposition for you. You can win every case you try for the rest of your life. Your clients will adore you, your colleagues will stand in awe of you, and you will make embarrassing sums of money. All I want in exchange is your soul, your husband's soul, your children's souls, the souls of your parents, grandparents, and parents-in-law, and the souls of all your friends and law partners." The lawyer thought for a moment, then asked: "So, what's the catch?"

And it’s with that question in mind that I want to approach our gospel text this morning.
What's the catch?
There are many engaging images and characters in these few short verses. But what’s really interesting about these few scriptures from Mark’s gospel is not necessarily what’s in them, but what’s missing from them. Let me explain, when you read these scriptures in the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke (BTW…synoptic simply means a broad summary of an event), there are substantial differences in the telling of this wilderness story. Luke and Matthew actually expand the story to include an additional 10 verses. Within these verses we have a complex dialogue between Jesus and the Satan where the temptations have very specific form and function.
In the original Greek, the word Satan actually just means accuser. You might remember these versions of the story. First the Satan challenges Jesus to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger from fasting for 40 days and 40 nights. Next the Satan tries to trick Jesus into showing off his special relationship with God by challenging him to throw himself off of the top of the temple so that the angels might save him. And the third temptation occurs after the Satan takes Jesus up a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. If Jesus would just agree to worship the Satan, then all of these kingdoms would be given to Jesus. Of course, Jesus passes each test and the Satan or Accuser finally leaves him alone.

But in Mark’s gospel, the account which most scholars agree is much older than the other two gospels; there are just these two simple verses. After John baptized Jesus, “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” Short, but not so sweet. We have just five characters in Mark’s version of the story; Jesus, the Spirit, Satan, wild beasts, and the angels—all of which are in the wilderness together for a period of forty days.

The first character in the story is the Spirit of God—or as we’ve come to refer it; the Holy Spirit. I know this might sound a little weird and sacrilegious, but the Holy Spirit in this story seems a little schizophrenic to me. If you remember the baptism story of Jesus, God speaks words of incredible love and acceptance to Jesus when he says; “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well-pleased.” With that statement, the Holy Spirit suddenly appears to Jesus in the form that looked like a dove. It’s a beautiful image. But then, in the very next verse the Spirit 'pushes' Jesus into the desert wild. 
In the original Greek language the word used here “ekballo” actually refers to an action a bit more vigorous than just a slight push. It means throwing something or someone out of your presence. It’s the same verb that Mark uses when Jesus cast out demons. It’s the same verb that Jesus uses when chasing the merchants out of the temple, violently turning over their trading tables. Now can you see the context?  The Holy Spirit adamantly, violently, shoves Jesus out into the desert! I just have to ask; why on earth would the Holy Spirit be so brutal?

An interesting statistic is surfacing again out of most of the news media that an unprecedented number of American adults are still living with their parents, or moving back in with them after living on their own for several years. Most obvious is the increasingly common phenomenon of men and women returning home after graduating college. Now there’s a variety of explanations, all of which were accurate: So many accomplishments – both academic and professional – are needed today in order to become self-sufficient. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to stay home and save money while preparing for a future profession.

But there’s also another explanation. Many psychologists say that far more adult children stay home today because it is often quite pleasant to live with one's parents. Now think about that! This is certainly a far different situation that what we know of the WWII generation and their baby boomer children. Very few people in the past would have liked living with their parents beyond childhood. In fact, many people did not even like living with their parents during their childhood. But today’s generation of Americans was raised with more freedom, more autonomy and much more respect than probably any past generation in history. And you have to admit that there have been enormous improvements in some of the ways children are being raised.

Do you remember the saying "Children should be seen and not heard"? That saying reflected past society's view of children. Children were not, to put it simply, taken seriously. They were rarely regarded as persons in their own right or as individuals who should be able to express themselves. Children were regarded more like clones whose primary reason for being was to give parents pleasure and reflect honor on them. This all changed with the baby boomer generation, who made their homes far more livable, even enjoyable, for their children than parents in the past did. As a result, more and more adult children do not regard being in their parents' company nearly as unpleasant or even embarrassing as children used to. Now let me remind you, I’m quoting from a newspaper article!

But stay with me for a second. After the baptism event, can’t we possibly imagine that Jesus could have felt this way as well? Basking in the warm cloud of God’s love and embrace, why would he ever want to leave? And you may have experienced this too in the past—experienced what God was feeling as well, with your children or grandchildren. Have you ever felt like you had to give a little push to someone you loved?  Perhaps you knew they could accomplish the near-impossible; but they were unsure.  They had the ability for greatness but lacked the initial confidence to take that first step; they had not yet been tried (which is the root word of temptation) to go out on their own. I think the Spirit so aggressively pushing Jesus out of that cozy cloud of God’s love because Jesus needed to be tried and tempted in order for his ministry to be thoroughly clarified.  Yet, it was hard – even for the Son of God – to willingly walk into the wilderness where he would be tested by Satan.

Today is the fifth day of our Lenten journey. Many of you may have made a commitment to remember these 40 days by giving up something through fasting or changing behaviors. But I encourage you instead to take something on. Take on a spiritual discipline like meditation, a daily devotional, or a physical prayer activity like walking a labyrinth. Take on a commitment to renew an estranged relationship. Some of you might be in a very real wilderness right now, not sure where you are or where you are going. Take on the task of finding direction for your life. You might be experiencing a lot of fear and wild beasts in your life—or even confronting your own Satan or accuser right now. Take on one of those wild beast and free yourself from fear.

But no matter how you choose to live out these 40 days, remember this most of all. Even Jesus had to be pushed into those lonely places. He did not willingly walk into the wilderness, God’s spirit pushed him. And sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes you. You’ll know what it is when you feel it. It’s that little tug on your heart or the huge crisis that emerges pushing you out of your comfort zone, or into a new experience. Our task this Lenten season is not adherence to a list of rules and regulations, or maintaining a level of piety for 40 days that cannot be sustained all year long. It encourages us to be faithful to the journey that God has called each one of us to take.

I’d like you to take a few moments to “take on” this exercise:

Taking the Test - During silent reflection make a list of times in the past week in which you have been tested; perhaps some “wild beasts” have filled you with anxiety and terror? Are you in a place of personal wilderness? Have you been challenged by an accuser? Finally, list the times in the past week in which you have experienced signs of God’s grace.

My Personal Wilderness (a place in my life where I feel lost, without guidance or direction):

Wild Beasts in my Life (situations or events that bring distress, anxiety or terror in my personal wilderness):

Ways I’ve been tested by the “Accuser” (internal and external voices that seem to complicate my journey):

Signs of God’s Grace (relationships that reinforce God’s love and commitment to my journey):

During your silent reflection or prayer time this Lenten season, I invite you to ask God to be present in your wilderness experience, creating a space around it so that you can experience God’s peace. For where when you are at peace, no one or no thing can tempt you or distract you on your journey to Easter. And that my friends, is where we are all headed together. Amen!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Picture Perfect

Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

Do you mind if I take your picture before I begin? I want to remember this moment. Could all of you kind of scrunch in together so I can get you all in the picture? Perfect. Say Cheese. (Click!)
The world is full of amateur photographers, and I am one of them. I think that most of us are obsessed with taking pictures and having our pictures taken. In focus or out of focus, posed or candid, we are forever snapping pictures of each other, of the things around us, of things inside of us and anywhere else we can focus our trustworthy lens. There is nothing too sacred to escape the click of the omnipresent shutterbug. Baptisms, confirmations, weddings, birthdays, and especially family vacations are all fair game for amateur photographers.

And now in this new age of digital media, we put our photos not just in wooden or plastic frames, but on digital photo players, mouse pads, key chains, refrigerator magnets, slideshows, on internet web pages and social networking sites, even on DVDs. We have turned the photography business into a multi-billion dollar industry. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me that if Jesus appeared here this morning, someone would immediately whip out their camera phone and try to digitally capture him and then post it on YouTube. Now that might get a few hits. Wouldn’t you say?
It occurred to me, as I contemplated our obsession with picture taking, how things might have been in biblical times if these familiar characters had had the use of the modern camera. Can you imagine Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Eve trying to take a photograph of Adam for the grandchildren? "Stand up straight, Adam, and for goodness sake keep those leaves still. We will never get these pictures back from Walgreen's if you don't keep covered up!"

Or can you see Noah, after the flood was over, trying to get a picture of all the animals in front of the ark with the rainbow in the background? "Japeth! Tell those rabbits in the front row to stop fooling around. And get that giraffe to hold his head down so I can get him in the picture."

Or King Solomon taking a picture of all his foreign wives and concubines and kids? It might have looked like the Democratic National Convention last year.
Or can you imagine a church historian at Pentecost trying to get a picture of the crowd with the tongues of fire over their heads? "Preach that sermon one more time, Peter, I want to get a shot from the back." Or the disciples taking pictures during Jesus' ministry? "Don't heal that leper yet, let me get my camera in focus. OK, go ahead! Oops, could you have him kneel away from the sun?"

Can you see Peter on the day of the Transfiguration? "Oh, isn't this wonderful? Lord, if only we could stay here always! Just a minute, let me get a picture of this so we can show all the guys when we get back. Jesus, could you have Moses and old E'Lije come back for just a minute so I can get a picture of the three of you together? No one is going to believe this!"

If Peter had had a camera that day he would have been taking pictures until everyone was tired of posing. Peter was just like most of us. He wanted to preserve a meaningful moment for all time. If he had had his way he would have stayed there forever. "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."

Like Peter we all try, in our own ways, to prolong the mountaintop experiences of our lives. But they never look quite the same in photographs or on videotape. The Holy can never be fully captured by pictures or stories. Jesus is always taking us back down the mountain, back to our everyday realities. The best we can do is to enter fully into the transfiguring experience so that the way we live our lives from that moment on will have a transfiguring effect on others.

“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

The language of transfiguration is not unfamiliar to us. We use phrases such as, “the radiant bride,” “the beaming father,” “her face just glowed.” When we use this language, we are describing a transfiguration of someone near to us. Transfiguration happens not only in the Bible but also to real people in the real world today.

I’ve truly had many experiences in my life when I was transformed from one state of consciousness into another. I remember the experiences of visiting a new country while stationed in the Air Force overseas…always meeting someone who was also traveling and sharing the experience…like; standing on the edge of the cliffs of the Island of Santorini in Greece. Riding my moped across the Island of Crete and picking olives for extra cash. I remember jumping off of waterfalls in Hawaii…and the feeling of exhilaration from such a perilous experience. The time I traveled to Israel, was baptized in the Jordan River and visited the places where Jesus walked.

I’ll never forget standing at the entrance to Checkpoint Charlie in West Berlin, being inspected by Russian guards before crossing the border. Memories of; flying over the glaciers in Iceland in a helicopter; standing atop the Eifel Tower in Paris; climbing to the top of one of the pyramids of Giza in Egypt; all of which I’ve taken pictures.

But I’ve also been transfigured by every day ministry experiences; the death of my grandmother after her short illness, holding her in my arms and pleading for just one more minute of time with her. Walking into a hospital room and praying for a beloved church member as they pass from earth to heaven. Sitting in my very first UCC worship service after 10 years of running from God, and feeling so much love as if it were a warm blanket surrounding me.

Walking the aisle during my ordination service, and releasing all the memories of oppression and prejudice from some church experiences in my past.

And often it’s not the mountaintop experiences that have the biggest impact on us, but the ones that occur while we are living the darkest valleys of our life; those dark night of the soul kinds of experiences. Whenever you are upset about an event, a person, or a situation, the real cause is not the event, person or situation but a loss of true perspective that only space can provide. The words, this too shall pass, can restore awareness of that inner dimension within you. And in this space do we find the perfect love of God.

What the disciples witnessed with Jesus was obviously a transfiguration. The fullness of his life burst out. The Spirit within him erupted. He was full of love for God and humanity. It was obviously a total, energetic love. Jesus turned his life over to humanity and God for the sake of God and humanity. And in doing so he experienced a fullness of life and love.

Just like it was for Jesus, the fullness of life and love is for us too. The transfiguration is about us. It is for us. It’s about being the incarnation of God. We trust God with our lives. We die to our old life and are born to a life in the Spirit. We shine with new life. And the transfiguration is for our churches. We talk of transformation and revival. What we want is transfiguration. We want energy, spirit and radiance. What we want is what God offers.

Transfiguration is about changing appearances.
We change not because of necessity, but out of our desire to please God.

How can we please God? What exactly did Jesus do to evoke such strong emotion from God? Can we do the same? What are the mountaintop experiences that have changed you?

I invite you to recount the mountaintop experiences of your life, and remember. Remember not what you used to be, but how you have been changed because of them. And in doing so you will remember who God has called you to be a people of faith in this time and place. And that, my friends, will provide you a picture of your future. Amen.

(Excerpts from John Keeny, “Lectionary Musings,” (

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Clocking In

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I, like many of you, am no stranger to fevers. A year ago this month I traveled to Tampa, Florida for a conference and came down with what I thought was food poisoning, on the very first night I was there. I couldn’t think of anything else that could make me so sick, so quickly, for I was in bed for three days with a very high fever, night chills, and the expulsion of some really inhumane bodily fluids. It took me about two weeks to fully recover, until I encountered the same illness just two months later in April. This prompted a trip to a gastroenterologist, and an eventual colonoscopy, but these tests returned negative results.

Tampa Convention Center
My next business trip in July returned me to Tampa again, where I suffered the same fate; three days in bed with a near visit to the hospital. But I persevered, and since I did not want to be stuck in the hospital in such a foreign country, I made my flight home; clutching the barf bag throughout the next 6 hours.  My doctor became increasingly concerned and ordered CAT scans and X-rays trying to locate the cause of my symptoms.

While waiting for these results I fell ill again in August for a period of three weeks, this time suffering a fever of 104 degrees for two and three days at a time. Perplexed and bewildered, my doctor sent me to several specialists trying to identify a diagnosis and possible treatment. Throughout September and October I gave up at least a dozen vials of blood for testing, several more expensive computer imaging scans, lost 20 pounds, and racked up more medical bills than I’ve had in the last 30 years combined. When I came to preach for you last fall I was uncertain about my health, and my family and friends grew concerned for my well-being.

Now even as I retell my story I can almost re-experience the emotional desperation during that health crisis. And I know that many of you have probably experienced this same fear, and are perhaps struggling with serious health issues now. And I bring all this up this morning to help us empathize with our gospel story. By the time Jesus leaves the synagogue for Simon's house, he's already a sensation, but Simon's mother-in-law is too sick to notice. This is no cold or flu, but a fever that endangers her life, isolates her from the community, and prevents her from fulfilling her role and duties at home.

Now there are a few words in our text that have very unique meanings in the Greek that we don’t quite get in an English translation. First, the Greek word for being sick with a fever is pyressousa. The root word is pyre, which means fire. Webster’s dictionary gives two definitions for fever:

1. (n.) A diseased state of the system, marked by increased heat, acceleration of the pulse, and a general derangement of the functions, including usually, thirst and loss of appetite. Well, that could sound like a church council meeting.

But the second definition is; 2. (n.) Excessive excitement of passion in consequence of strong emotion; or a condition of great excitement. This definition reminds me of a condition suggested in Peggy Lee’s 1958 hit, “Fever.”

Never know how much I love you; never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me, you give me fever that's so hard to bear. You give me fever, when you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight. Fever, in the morning, fever all though the night.

But, to the audience of Mark’s gospel, it was demonic forces that were usually attributed to fever. You will notice verse 31 says that the fever “left her” upon her healing; as if some hostile entity was to blame. So to the ancient community hearing this story their immediate assumption is probably that something is spiritually wrong with Simon’s mother-in-law.

The second interesting thing in our text is in verse 29; the Greek word for house is oikia. Now that’s not Ikea, but it is close. Oikia describes more than just a physical structure, but a meeting space for family and relatives, a privileged place of the community. It is in this communal place that Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law. The same Greek verb that describes Jesus action of lifting her up is the same verb for Jesus’ resurrection at the end of Mark.  But more importantly is the response of Simon’s mother-in-law in verse 31; and immediately she begins to serve them.

The Greek term here is diakonisa, which is where we get the term deacon and deaconess; service is the key topic in the call and pursuit of Jesus. Notice that Jesus did not command her, but it was her response to being healed. She responds to this gift with service. We cannot interpret this service as some kind of menial work, but as true messianic ministry. She becomes Jesus’ first deacon; the first servant of the church of Jesus. She understands the message of the Jesus’ Gospel even before the disciples get it.

What makes this healing so beautiful is because it happens in a home; the oikia which reflects the earliest Christian communities, were house churches. These meetings in homes made the life of the community possible; they were the missionary platforms, a welcome place for itinerant preachers, and they provided economic support for the growing Christian movement. Christianity was nurtured and affirmed in these social, not sacred spaces. The Jesus movement spread in daily life, in small communities where service to others was the mark of the Gospel. Simon’s mother-in-law understood this long before any of the male disciples of Jesus did.

This story raises a question that we all struggle with. How can we belong to our community of faith if we can't find our place, or fulfill our role? The structure and purpose of church has evolved quite a bit over the last two thousand years. The reasons for being a part of a worshiping community in the first century after the death of Jesus are probably quite different from our reasons in the 21st century. You see, from the moment of Jesus’ first day of ministry he and his followers were on dangerous ground. Once Jesus spoke those first words at his baptism he became a heretic, an outlaw, a marked man. Jesus knew the danger he was in. Throughout the gospel of Mark Jesus continually tells his followers and those healed by him, not to speak a word of those miracles to anyone. He repeatedly talked about his impending death. And I personally believe that he tried to put off the inevitable for as long as possible until he could spread his message as far and as wide as was possible. He knew he had a job to do, and he wanted to complete that God given vocation. He was intentional about “clocking in” on God’s ministry time card.

What strikes me about today’s gospel text is the tenacity in which Jesus followed that calling. If we were to imagine his ministry as a time card, then he never really clocked out. He never stopped ministering to the sick and those afflicted by evil. The text says he healed their sick bodies and expelled the evil spirits. He did this until late in the night—and then got up early before dawn to pray and recharge his spiritual power.

Simon’s mother-in-law is a central figure in the text because it gives us a model for following Jesus. Jesus took her hand and lifted her up from the bed. And at that moment her fever of the body turned into a passion for service. Jesus took away her diseased state and gave her a new spiritual fervor, a passionate emotional response to serving this new family of faith.

I finally received a long awaited diagnosis in early December last year after suffering 10 months of such a strange and baffling illness. An infectious disease specialist discovered that I had a parasitic micro-organism called giardia, often called the travelers bug. 10 days on prescription medicine and my body was cleansed, and my health was restored…including the 20 pounds that I had lost. And while a quick fix may not be the remedy for the dis-eases that plague our communities and our world, I do believe that the touch of Jesus is the cure for what ails us. All throughout the gospels Jesus touches the troubled and tormented with his compassion and love and they are healed from their afflictions and reconciled to their community, just like Simon’s mother-in-law. And their response is to always serve their healer.

Let us be as Jesus; touching our world with compassion and turning them into followers of the Christ. As each of us commit to daily clocking into our responsibility as Christ-bearers, then the walls of our churches will not be able to contain his disciples. Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love, and for some people, you might be the only Jesus they will ever meet.

You know, Peggy Lee was on the right track. But let me sing it the Jesus way.

They’ll never know how much you love them; never know how much you care. You’ve gotta put your loving arms around them, give them a fever they have longed to share.
Give them God’s fever, when you touch them, fever when you hold them tight. Fever, in the morning, fever all though the night.
Fever, not just on Sunday, but fever all though the week.
Fever, in our homes and fever in the way we speak.
Fever, at our work and fever shining bright with light.
Fever, in the morning, fever all through the night.

Fever! And everybody said, Amen!

Let us pray.
O God of our being, we recognize and celebrate the fevers that Jesus takes away, and the passion he gives us in return.  Thank you for the signs of his love and commitment to making us servants of his kingdom. Open our eyes so that we may see the opportunities for serving our world. Empower us that we may be Christ’s hands and feet in the ongoing labor of caring and compassion. Let us never deride or put down those opportunities for humble service. But give us patience and humility that we need in order to do our daily work with joy. In all things, teach us to respond in love and not hate. And grant us the ability to show others the way to your grace. In the name of the one who showed us the way—Amen!