Thursday, September 24, 2009

Who Owns God's Power

This week's scriptures are Psalm 124 and Mark 9:38-50.

I want to focus on Mark 9:38-41 here today. And I want to focus on it because it involves a struggle that I have so often in my own life...the desire to be on the inside, to own the truth, to be able to indentify and delineate the way in which God's power is boundaried.

In this passage, John comes to Jesus and says, 'we saw this guy casting out demons in your name; and we told him to stop because he wasn't one of us.'

We can think of a lot of reasons why the disciples might have done this. One of them is closely associated with Peter's words to Jesus in Mark 10:28 about the disciples having "given up everything to follow you." The felt they were entitled. After all, they had turned their backs on a social structure which had provided them a place and an identity; they had given up what ever role and status they had to follow Jesus. And here this upstart was casting out demons in Jesus' name...and he wasn't even one of them. That was their power...not his! They had earned the right to be the 'chosen few.' In fact, some of them were already thinking about where they were going to sit at the parties when Jesus came into his kingdom.

Jesus' response was clear and crisp. 'If you're not against me, you're for me; it'll be hard for you to put me down if you've seen the power of my name at work.'

It's not a response that sits well....with them; or us. Think about how many good, helpful movements started out with the goal of dealing with the world's pain, healing a wound, fixing a problem....only to begin building fences around who was allowed in and out of the "kingdom." We're all guilty of it. We work hard, we sacrifice, we change our lives...and by golly everybody else ought to have to pay the price we've paid!

If they had done this in our day, they would have contacted the regional 'Exorcist Certification Board' who would have approached this gentleman and said something like, "Mr. Simon, we'd like to know what your credentials are for casting out demons...yes sir, we know you're doing it in Jesus name....however you need to be aware that without the proper credentials your possessed one will not be able to collect his insurance reimbursement for this casting out (after deductable of course)'re not going to stop? Yes we can see that the demon is gone...that's not the point. Well just make sure that you don't refer to yourself as a Certified Exorcist. Huh, you think Jesus' name is enough? Well we've got some questions for him too."

If our concern is truly about God's healing power in the world, perhaps we need to remember that that power will not be bound by anyone or anything. God's Spirit blows where it wills. The test for discernment is not "do you have there right credentials?" "Do you have the right theology?" or "do you have the right politics?" They are, for us, just as they were when Jesus answered John the Baptist's disciples: "Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (Luke 7:22-23).

What would happen if we as Christians made that the criteria for our lines of connection, our joint efforts in ministry? What if we were more concerned with whether the hungry were fed and the sick got care than whether the ones working with us agreed with our politics or our theology? Wouldn't we, in fact, come closer to the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed?

It is a dangerous view. It is a scary view. Some days I don't like it much. But the truth is that if it leads us closer to what Jesus was teaching, whether I like it or not doesn't matter; whether it scares me or not doesnt' matter; whether it costs me or not doesn't matter. What matters is that the "little ones" that Jesus talked about don't stumble on my insistance that things be done my way. That's what Jesus cares about.

We'll explore this more on Sunday. Hope to see you there.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Promises at Baptism

This week's scriptures are Psalm 1 and Mark 9:30-37.

This week we're going down to the Little Magothy River for our worship service. We're going to baptize Matthew on Sunday morning and we're going to celebrate this milestone on his, and our, journey in Christ.

Baptism, like Communion, has been the source of some major controversies in the history of the historical church. Many of these controversies about baptism have had to do with the idea that one's sins were washed away in baptism, but that sins committed afterward would still be held to the account of the individual in question.
This was a belief that had some christians waiting til right before death to be baptized; lest they miss heaven because of sins committed after their baptism.

What has this got to do with us?

The first thing is that the cousin of the theological fallacy above is still with us. It comes in the form of believing that our coming to Jesus is a one time and done kind of thing. The idea that 'we're saved, it's done, shouldn't be any more problems' is one that creeps into the corners of many people's thoughts about their own faith or that of others.

The truth is that we are entering a relationship. It will last a lifetime. It will go through seasons, changes, ups and downs. Baptism is not magic. It is a symbol of both 'new birth' and the 'washing away' of sins. But it is a symbol of something that never stops. In Christ we are constantly being reborn, changed, (sanctified-if you want the old style word). And in Christ our sins are constantly being washed away. This is all God's doing...not the result of the symbol. God doesn't act because we baptize; we baptize because God has acted and will continue to act.

To bring this a little more down to and I are on a journey in God. Our entire lives are lived in God's love. Paul says that God is the one "in whom we live, and move, and have our being." I going to mess up. In my case, I'm going to mess up a lot. But the journey doesn't end because I mess up. Because my journey occurs within the Love of God, I am able to go on, to repent, to grow. And so are you. Consequently, I cannot judge you. I may have an issue with your behavior; and I may confront that behavior (or you may need to confront mine). But we do it in love, because we're both on the same journey. Think about that. If we really take it seriously, it radically transforms the way in which we look at ourselves and at those whose behaviors we find-to be honest-really rotten.

Baptism is where we welcome another onto that journey because they've made a conscious choice about being on it; and we commit ourselves to being fellow travelers with them on that journey. They do the same for us at their baptism as well. That commitment shouldn't change...ever. Let me say it again. Our commitment to supporting them on their journey of faith should not ever change.

If they become addicted; our commitment should not change. If they develop a rare disease; our commitment should not change. If they commit murder, robbery, or a sex offense; our commitment should not change. If they divorce, go insane, become senile, or quit doesn't matter...our commitment should not change!

Why not? Simple. Because we are the Body of Christ. And when we accepted that task we gave up the 'right' to judge and exclude. That doesn't mean we don't hold people accountable. It does mean that we always seek their healing and act to sustain them on their journey.

We're coming to the water on Sunday to baptize someone. We're coming to make promises to him; and he to us. We're not going to always be successful at it; but that doesn't mean that the promises aren't there, or that anything ever releases us from the responsibility to try to keep those promises. They aren't a contract, but a covenant.

I'd be scared to come to the water if I did not come in the assurance that God will meet us there. For the greatest promises that will be made Sunday morning are the ones that God makes to and forever more.

See you at the water.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

From The Rock to a Screaming Match-What It Means to Me

This week's scriptures are isaiah 50:4-9 and Mark 8:27-38.

This week's passage from Mark sounds so much like us to me that I can hardly stand it. Why? Because here, in the middle of all the misunderstanding in the preceding passages, and the arguing afterward with Jesus about what is going to is that singular flash of understanding. It won't last long. It won't stop Peter just moments later from screaming at Jesus-and Jesus screaming back, by the way-when He tries to explain what's coming. But it's there. For one brief, shining moment....Peter gets it. And that moment, I think, will carry him through the darkness that is to come. For one magnificent moment Peter knows. From the top of his tingling head, down his spine to his quickly beating heart, and through his toes curling into the sand at his feet......he knows.

And's gone.....sorta. It's a knowledge so great that he can't take it all in. But it's a knowledge that hangs around; hovering in the corners of his heart, whispering from the edges of his mind. It's a knowledge that will shape the rest of his life. From his "where else would we go, you have the words of life" in the passage from John a few weeks ago, to "You are the Messiah."

It's also a knowledge that will torment and judge him when he fails. When he denies knowing Jesus; when he moves away from the gentiles at table later in the early church.

But I also think that it is a knowledge that shapes his compassion. It opens him up to the dream he will get in Acts that convinces him that the gospel was for all; to go to the house of Cornelius; and when challenged by leaders in Jerusalem, to share his dream and his understanding. (Acts 10:1-11:18)

Peter was a man who was a mixture of anger and care; impulsivity and thoughtfulness; boldness and fear. He did not always live out the understanding that burst out of him that day. And he agonized over his failures. Sounds a bit like you and me doesn't it.

In our Isaiah passage we find the words, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of one who has been instructed to console the weary with a timely word; he made my hearing sharp every morning, that I might listen like one under instruction" (5o:4) We can 'console others with a timely word', and 'listen like one under instruction' because we both know who Jesus is; and know our own shortcomings. One gives us hope...the other gives us compassion. We find that in our journey...our rising and falling, our sudden, brilliant flashes where God breaks through...just for the moment, our struggles to reach toward what we're called to be...the experiences shape our response to others.

Two quotes for you. Two of my favorites (which means you've probably heard them before, and WARNING!-you'll probably hear them again):

"Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry the message to those that still suffer; and to practice these principles in all our affairs" (the 12th Step of AA and other 12 Step programs)

"He consoles us in all our troubles, so that we in turn may be able to console others in any trouble of theirs and to share with them the consolation we ourselves have recieved from God." (2 Corinthians 1:4)

I've rambled a bit today. But our lives ramble as well. There is rarely a straight line in our lives or our journey of faith. We fall, we rise. We tend our own wounds, we reach out to tend the wounds of others. Most of all...we trust....because we know. We've been given that moment when we too could say, "You are the Christ, where else could we go."

See you Sunday.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Did Jesus Know? And When Did He Know It?

This week's scriptures are Mark 7:24-37.

When you get to church on Sunday you'll notice that I have divided this scripture into two readings: the first is the story of the curing of the Syrophonecian woman's daughter (an incredibly disturbing story) told in verses 24-30; and the curing of a gentile deaf-mute in verses 31-37.

The thing that makes the first narrative so disturbing is Jesus' response to this gentile woman who comes to him pleading for her daughter's healing. Her daughter apparently has a demon. We don't know what kind or what it causes her to do. That doesn't appear to be important to Mark. What is important is that she comes and throws herself at Jesus' feet, begging for his help.

Jesus' response is designed to send preachers and commentators running for cover. He says to her, "It isn't right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Whew! This isn't a statement we associate with the compassionate Jesus, Savior of the World, Cosmic Christ....take your pick. Frankly it's a crappy thing to say. So why did Jesus say it? And why does Mark tell us about it where and how he did?

One could make the case that Jesus, in his humanity, is just plain tired. Verse 31 tells us that he "went into a house and didn't want anyone to know that he was there." He's exhausted; and like you and I when we're tired and put upon and feel like the world is sucking us dry, he snapped at the first person who invaded his quiet time alone. I could handle that better if he snapped at Peter or James; screamed, "Can't you leave me alone for just one minute? Can't you see I'm exhausted? I can't take much more of this!" But this woman...suffering, seeking, begging. She doesn't even have a male relative to approach Jesus for her (a cultural requirement) which, like the woman who touched Jesus robe, indicates how truly alone and desperate she was. And Jesus calls her and her child a "dog"?

Some commentators make the case that Jesus, like you and I, had an ever growing, ever unfolding understanding of his call by God. They make the case that Jesus is growing in his understanding of what the Kingdom of God looks like, and who it includes. They say that this woman, in her challenge to Jesus (again, an incredibly feisty and couragous thing) when she says, "yeah, but even the dogs get the scraps off the table" brings Jesus to a new awareness of what it means to bring in God's Kingdom.

Now this is intriguing. What did Jesus know about the Kingdom? And when did he know it? Did a blaze of complete understanding come down with the dove that descended at Jesus' baptism? Or did the times that Jesus went off by himself in prayer indicate a growing understanding. One could make the case that right up to the prayer in the garden: "Lord, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me" that Jesus was involved in an ongoing dialogue with God about the nature of his call and his ministry.

I like that. I don't say that you've got to believe it; but the idea that Jesus, who was "tempted in all points like we are" dealt with the shadows and questions of what it means to be called to live his life gives me comfort. You and I don't have the luxury of a full picture of what it means to be called to live our lives as God's people. We move forward in the little patches of light we're given, one step at a time. We sweat and struggle with our choices and wonder 'is this right?' 'is this what I'm called to?' and we throw ourselves on God's mercy that God will take our efforts and bless them in love and mercy.

Now I think that Jesus was much more tuned in, much stronger, more obedient, totally God-in-the-Flesh. But....I also find comfort in the idea that Jesus listened and prayed and was obedient....even when he couldn't see past his little patch of light. That makes Jesus "fully human" to me and offers the possibility that my obedience might, possibly look more like his than my own selfish, bumbling, sinful efforts; and that Jesus understands my struggle.

But it still doesn't answer the question: why would Jesus talk to this poor woman this way?

I'm moving toward an answer. I don't quiet have it yet...and I don't want to let Jesus off the hook either. So here's what I'm going to do: I'm going to invite you to church on Sunday. I'm going to promise you that I'm going to study and pray and struggle with this question; and Sunday morning I'm going to give you my best response to the question. Please come join us at 10:00 a.m. at Broadneck Baptist. And if you can't be there, the sermon will be posted for this ocming Sunday in the sermons on this site.

I'm not going to duck and dodge and give you an easy answer. This passage is really troublesome. I'm going to give you my best. In the meantime; I ask that you struggle with it too. This is what Baptists mean by the "priesthood of all believers." That each of us struggles and sweats with scripture and with what it means to us personally.

If, after Sunday, your struggle with this passage has taken you somewhere different than me, or if you have ideas you think I need to consider before then, please respond here. Let me, and others, know what you're thinking about this passage. Join us in the unfolding of our identity as God's people in this time and place.

What did this incident mean to Jesus? What does it mean to us?

Hope to see you Sunday.