Tuesday, March 24, 2009


This week's scriptures are Mark 9:30-41 and Philippians 2:1-11.

I have to start by thanking Susan Foutz again for writing last week's blog. Her comments about the questions that we ask have been turning over and over in my mind as I've been looking at the scriptures for this week.

Talking about "servanthood" is one of those things that used to be very popular. Robert Greenleaf's book on Servant Leadership and Max Dupree's Leadership Is An Art were two of the books that fueled much of the conversation, conferences, and workshops that were held for both church leaders and and business ones. Then the focus moved on. Being "effective" and having good "time management skills" became the new buzzwords.

But scripture hasn't changed. And scripture's focus on servanthood was always a little different from that of the folks above (which is not to take away from Greenleaf or Dupree's contributions to moving management into a more positive direction). And this is where it gets hard. Because 'servant management' is a lot easier to define than the kind of servanthood that Jesus calls us to and Paul writes about.

Phrases like "whoever recieves one such child in my name recieves me" and "Christ emptied himself and took the form of a servant" raise some of the most troubling questions.

Jesus' culture didn't have the same attitude toward children that ours does...or maybe it did, and our culture just masks it better. In the eyes of the culture surrounding Jesus, children had no social value. They were worthless. Jesus' use of a child to make his point to the disciples was one more example of demonstrating that the Kingdom of God had come for those at the margins, those outside the gate, those who didn't matter to anyone else. It was a shocking, 'slap in the face' moment for the disciples. Put this next to Jesus' statement that "unless you become as little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven" and you have a call to radical care for the marginalized.

We don't have to look very far in our world to see that the attitude toward children hasn't changed much. We don't have to go to other countries to find starving children, sick children without medical care, or children suffering from grinding poverty. If I hear one more person say "children are our future" I think I will be ill. How come one of the major illegal trades in our world now is human trafficking...and much of that in children? How come our country (and others) still have not acted in Darfur? Is it because we do not see these people as having "value" to us because their oppression does not affect us financially or in some other direct way? I do not ask these questions just of others-but of myself as well.

And then there is the issue of what it means to be a servant in the first place. How can I be a servant to the drunk driver who kills a family on the road? The pedophile who trades child porn on line? The corrupt executive who walks away with a "golden parachute" while investors and employees without such safety nets go broke?

Jesus didn't just call us to be servants to 'nice folks' who're like us. But what does it mean? And what does it look like? And why does it call for such powerful transformation in the way we look at and live in our world?

I'm struggling hard with these questions. I hope to have some partial answers by Sunday. I also hope you'll write your responses and comments here on the blog page to help frame that conversation.

Hope to see you on Sunday.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Asking the BIG (and little) Questions

I'm filling in for Stephen this week. As you can see from all the good blogging he does, he needed a chance to recharge his batteries. I should start by saying I don't take direction well. In this case, it means I looked at how the blog normal works and said, "I'm going to do something different." So let's start...

I was thinking over the last few weeks about the role of questions and questioning as we study scriptures. This was brought about by a couple of occurrences. The first was in relation to Mark 8:22-26. We've been using this passage during Lent to think about the need for a "Second Touch" as Stephen calls it. The crux of the passage is that the blind man needed to be touched twice by Jesus to have his sight fully restored. When we first talked about this passage in Bible study, my first question did not center around the healing, but around the end of the story: "Jesus sent him him home, saying, 'Don't go into the village.'" Why? What was so wrong with sharing with the people in the village the miracle that had occurred? What's the point of a miracle if you can't tell your friends?

Later I used the same passage with the kids who attend our weekday activities- music, crafts, bible story. I read the story after couching it in a discussion of healing and dealing with injuries. And wouldn't you know..but one of the little girls got hung up on Mark 8:26 too! She had a different question though: How is he supposed to get home if the can't go into the village? I had no idea and probably glossed over that great question a little too fast. But thinking about it now, it was a very practical question, even more practical than mine. The girl was trying to work out, in a similar way as I was, how the story worked. What's the point of being cured if you can't go home again?

In the scheme of things, I think the girl and I had little questions. Not unimportant questions, but these little questions that take us away from the meaning of the passage as a whole. However, until these questions are answered we can't focus our attention on the miracle at the heart of the passage. When we get these little questions answered then we can turn to the big questions: Why did the man need to be touched twice? What are the roles of trust and faith in the passage?

I would like to encourage us all to ask the little and big questions when reading scripture. When we ask these questions to ourselves, to our family, or to our fellow members, we are thinking critically. I believe thinking critically about what you are reading or hearing is a stop on the way to internalizing the information. From there we can apply the message to ourselves, our lives, our times.

Have a great week and see you Sunday!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Matter of Faith

This week's scriptures are Mark 6:1-13 and Mark 9:14-29.

Both of these passages are interesting because they put situations that look like 'failure' side by side with times of impressive 'success.'

In Mark 5, Jesus has cast out a boat load of demons, healed a woman who just touched him, and raised a child from the dead for one of the leaders of the synagogue. But in Mark 6 he is rejected in his hometown and we're told that Jesus 'could do no deed of power there' ('except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them'....you gotta wonder about Mark's sense of humor here) due to their lack of faith-a lack of faith that has Jesus 'amazed at their unbelief'. Apparently, these folks, who have known Jesus since boyhood, can't get past their familiarity and their cultural belief that Jesus, as the son of Joseph and Mary, is locked into a social role that is inescapable.

Before we pass too much judgement on the people of Nazareth, we might want to remember the times in our own lives when we have been defined by some part of our youth or our past; or when we have seen it happen to another. I remember a guy who, in his senior year of high school, recovered a fumble and ran 90 yards for a touchdown against a major rival. Over 10 years later, his wife told me, "you know, that's what everybody remembers." His accomplishments since...his education...his marriage? Nope...that 90 yard run. And he was lucky. Suppose the thing people had remembered wasn't so flattering.

They (the people of Nazareth) 'took offense' at Jesus. In that culture's view for one person to be lifted up, another had to lose. So they did a 1st century version of "Who do you think you are? Aren't you getting a little big for your britches?"
And the repercussion was that they were blocked from what might have happened. Mark seems to indicate that had they been able to break out of this stance, some great "deed of power" might have been done there. How sad that they were not able to suspend their world view for just a moment. And (this is important, I think) the ones who were able to....the sick people he cured....were the ones desperate enough to risk the possibility of a new way of seeing.

Now we move on to Mark 9. Jesus comes down from the mountain where he has been transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John to join the other disciples. Jesus finds them arguing with some scribes and surrounded by a crowd. An man has brought them his epileptic son and they can't heal him.

Jesus explodes, "You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?" and commands that the boy be brought to him. Now we'll be looking at the rest of this story on Sunday....but for the moment I want to make a couple of observations. The first is that I think that the comment Jesus makes is aimed at his disciples and at the scribes.

The disciples have already been sent out on a healing mission before. They've know the experience of God working through them in Jesus name. Yet here they are, arguing with the scribes while this boy is writhing on the ground. And probably arguing about some 'law' that might be broken if the healing was done...or whether they had the authority to do the healing. No wonder they couldn't heal this boy. They had let their energy get caught up in the argument and focused there rather than on the important task at hand. And I think that Jesus' comment that such healings take "prayer and fasting" is a comment on where the focus needs to be: on an emptying of themselves (ourselves) and a strengthening of their (our) connection with the one in whose name we act.

These stories have a great deal to say to you and me on a bunch of levels. But for now, I would focus on this: For God to work through us in the world; and in us in our lives, we need to be....we have to be....willing to risk stepping out of our old ways of seeing. To lay aside our old ways of doing. If just for a moment, we need to say, 'what if' and risk the possibility.

A NOTE OF REQUEST: I know that many folks who read the blog are new to this kind of thing. But your thoughts and reactions to the ideas here are a part of a conversation that-hopefully-results in Sunday's sermon. It's a chance for me to hear the kinds of questions that are stirred up by the scriptures and where I'm going with them. So please, if you have time, share your thoughts. I'd love to hear them....as would others who read the blog.

Thanks and I hope to see you Sunday.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be The Messiah

This week's scriptures are Genesis 7:1-16 and Mark 8:27-38.

This week's Markan passage is the first of three times that Jesus speaks about his suffering and death. He does it as the counterpoint to Peter's answer to the question, "who do you say that I am?" Peter's answer, as you probably remember was, "you are the Christ, the son of the living God."

It's a wonderful answer....as far as it went.

But the fireworks that take place between Peter and Jesus immediately afterward let us know that there is something about Peter's answer that isn't wrong....it just isn't right enough.

Whatever Peter's mental image was of Jesus being the Christ, it didn't include Jesus suffering and dying. It didn't include the kind of sacrifice and anguish that Jesus is describing. So Peter pulls Jesus aside and they have this screaming match (to 'rebuke' means to scream at) about Jesus' view of His ministry and calling.

This leads to Jesus' famous comments about 'denying ones self taking up one's cross.' A passage that I imagine has been as misused and misunderstood as any in scripture.

We'll look more closely at this story on Saturday at the Bible Study Brunch and again on Sunday in worship.

But for now, I'd like to just look at the fact that there is a great gulf between Peter's confession and his understanding. I think that's true for most of us....I know it is for me. I believe in Jesus. I believe that He is the Son of God. I believe that He is the Messiah. But my understanding of what that means is a constantly unfolding thing.

When I accepted Christ as my Savior, I was a child. I understood as much as I probably could at that age; and my decision was sincere. But that faith would not serve me well now. It is not big enough to carry me through the days of my adult life.

But that's not all. There is something about the direction of our faith to consider as well. Dr. Jones told a wonderful story on Sunday about a woman in the slums of El Salvador who welcomed him into her home. For her, the direction of her faith said, 'welcome the stranger in Christ's name.' It was, in her poverty ridden situation, a direction of sacrifice.

Peter's ideas about the direction of the Messiah didn't include suffering and death. That's where he and Jesus had their argument. Now Jesus didn't send Peter home, kick him out of the disciples, or stop talking to him. They had a knock down, drag out fight about what it meant to be the Messiah....and follow the Messiah.

I'd like to say that I've learned a lot from this story....that I've learned from Peter's experience to never argue with Jesus about what it means to follow Him. I'd really, really like to say that.....but I can't. My life is a constant struggle with my understanding of what it means to be a disciple. Your's may be as well.

But we're in good company. This seems to be the common theme with all of Jesus' disciples; their growing, ongoing, lifelong struggle with their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.

And so we will struggle together on Saturday and Sunday. We'll examine some of the stories and try to understand what we need to do: what to 'lay down, to deny ourselves' and how to 'take up our cross' and follow.

I hope you'll join us.