A Topsy-Turvy Palm Sunday

“A Topsy-Turvy Palm Sunday”

Mark 11:1-11 (11:9) – March 28, 2021

            When my children were little – preschoolers and kindergarteners – I attended a larger church. I can remember seeing my children, with many others, marching around the sanctuary, waving their palms. Something many people fondly remember, and greatly miss. We cannot celebrate a Palm Sunday procession right now, due to pandemic concerns. Some churches are starting to return to in-person worship, but with lots of changes and adaptations! But – was there a formal, planned Palm Sunday procession, all those centuries ago?

Let’s look at today’s reading from Mark 11. “They brought the colt to Jesus, threw their cloaks over the animal, and Jesus got on. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches in the field and spread them on the road. The people who were in front and those who followed behind began to shout, “Praise God! God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 God bless the coming kingdom of King David, our father! Praise be to God!”

            That description does sound like a procession, doesn’t it? But, a spontaneous one. An impromptu one. No one expected Jesus to march into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. It took everyone off guard.

Except – remember Holy Week, last year? Remember the sudden shock and heightened anxiety that surrounded the encroaching pandemic? No one was really ready for that, either. It took everyone off guard, too.

Jesus prepared to ride into Jerusalem on that unbroken colt, on a donkey that no one had ever ridden before. Sure, His disciples made preparations and fetched the colt, but Jesus rode this humble beast into the city. “There was a tradition from the book of Maccabees of a triumphal and victorious entry of a king (1 Maccabees 4:19-25; 5:45-54; 13:43-51) into Jerusalem; instead, Jesus comes in peace and relatively quietly. Jesus would have known the verse from Zechariah about the Messiah coming into Jerusalem riding on an unbroken colt (Zechariah 9:9). The colt had never been ridden before, which seems a significant fact.” [1]

We can see Jesus entered Jerusalem as a King! What a King – not parading in a fancy chariot or riding on a white stallion. None of the fine trappings or fancy costumes of a King. No royal robes for the humble Rabbi Jesus. Sure, Jesus displayed power as He took part in this procession. “Something unusual occurs: Jesus has power, power over nature, again not the kind of power that is normally associated with kingship or political leadership. He is demonstrating a different kind of power, that in time people will recognise as evidence of His divinity.” [2]

Have you experienced something unusual in this Holy Week? What about last year’s Holy Week, and all the weeks in between? Sure, the world has been turned topsy-turvy. Everything has shifted, and nothing – it seems – is the same. But, hasn’t Jesus displayed His power in this modern Palm Sunday procession in the middle of the pandemic? Just as He displayed unusual power and authority in that Palm Sunday procession so long ago?

No, there were no kingly trumpets blaring as Jesus made the procession. But, people raised their voices when they saw the impromptu parade. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna! Praise God!” We might not be able to raise our actual, physical voices, but we can lift our hearts. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

As we reflect further on power – the kind of power Jesus displayed, which was definitely not worldly, raw, overbearing power! As we think about the gentle, spiritual, yet foundational power that Jesus embodies, what other memories come to mind from this past year of pandemic? Many in our country have a sharpened awareness of power – and the absence of it. Who has power, and who is using it.

As we think about essential workers, so many of them are low-wage workers. Workers who must go into a facility to do their jobs, or who punch a time-clock. Plus, workers put their health and even their lives on the line every time they go into work. “Those often paid least in our society are crucial to maintaining and caring; delivery, stocking and serving in shops. The majority of people who have lost jobs are people earning less than £10 an hour, while the rich have got richer.” [3] What would Jesus say about the increasing inequities of this past year?

Jesus and His Palm Sunday procession is a continuation of the topsy-turvy way He presented Himself to Israel as their King, as their Messiah. If we follow Jesus, we are certainly not called to be of this world. Jesus commands us not to get too comfortable or self-satisfied. That self-satisfied, self-righteous lifestyle was what many of the leaders and teachers of Jesus’ time tried to maintain. Is that what we try to maintain, too? Are we too comfortable to follow Jesus, to take up our Cross and follow Him down that difficult road of discipleship?

This week, I invite you to walk with Jesus, in that topsy-turvy way of discipleship. Not the self-satisfied, self-righteous strut, but the humble, kind walk with our Lord. Jesus walked through this Holy Week with eyes wide open. He knew what lay at the end of it – crucifixion and the Cross. As we travel with Jesus through this particular Holy Week, “are you more aware of what comes at the end of it? Because we know what comes next in a way we maybe never did before. But even more than that, perhaps because we also know our need of God in ways we maybe never did before.” [4]

Yes, we can say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” I invite all of us to travel with Jesus through these topsy-turvy times, because He is the one who will keep our steps safe and help us even when we stumble. Even on the way of the Cross. Amen, amen.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


[1] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/74513/28-March-6-Sunday-in-Lent.pdf

The Faith Nurture Forum would like to thank Rev Jenny Williams, Minister of Drylaw Parish Church, for her thoughts on Palm/Passion Sunday, sixth in Lent.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://dancingwiththeword.com/whispering-hosanna/

Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!

“Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!”

imandoa001p4

Matthew 17:1-9 (17:7) – February 23, 2020

Have you ever been really scared? I know I have. Most of us can relate when we hear about people being terrified. I mean, shocked, totally frightened out of your shoes!

What is it that terrifies you? Is it gunfire? Perhaps a gang shootout, on the street? Thankfully, most of us are fortunate to live in safer neighborhoods. What else could scare you to death? A huge fire in your house or work building? Or, what about a natural disaster here in Illinois, like a tornado, or in the Philippines, like a volcanic eruption?

Any of those events could terrify people. We heard about an event today that terrified the onlookers, too: the Transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, James and John were scared out of their sandals! Our Gospel reading from Matthew 17 tells us so.

Let us step back from this reading, and take a long view on the situation in Matthew 17. Jesus is not too far from the end of His ministry, His final trip to Judea and to Jerusalem. It’s only a matter of months before the culmination of Jesus’s time on earth. For the past three years, the itinerant Rabbi Jesus has been preaching, healing, performing miracles, telling parables, and generally doing the things we are used to Jesus doing.

I know Jesus’s typical daily schedule might seem different to us, today, but Jesus had been doing the same thing for quite a number of months.

Yes, He might be an itinerant Rabbi, traveling from place to place, but Jesus had a number of back-up people, ready to take care of His itinerary and check out possible places to stay and eat, not to mention travel. Did you ever think about that? There must have been at least a few people in Jesus’s traveling group of disciples who must have had some expertise in travel arrangements, and setting up food and lodgings.

And, that isn’t all. We understand from references in the Gospels that Jesus regularly took time out for prayer and meditation. At the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning, we see Jesus taking His inner circle of disciples away with Him to the top of a mountain. Did the three disciples have any idea of what would happen later that day? Do we? Do we really know what happened, there on that mountain?

Whatever the event in Matthew 17 was, it was absolutely amazing to see. Our other reading this morning from Exodus 24 also took place on a mountain. Try to see this scene in your imagination. If you will, picture it on the video screen in your head.

In Exodus, the Lord invited Moses up to the mountaintop, to get the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. Also, Moses was supposed to be on the Mountain with God for some time. Both events took place on top of a mountain, in the presence of the glory of God. As the face of Moses shone with that glorious light, so also shone the face of Jesus. Matthew tells us so!

But, it isn’t only the face of Jesus that gets all lit up. No, His clothing becomes brighter than bright, too! A Transfiguration is how the Gospel writer translates the word. In Greek, this word is actually “metamorphed.” We might recognize that word from metamorphosis, the changing of a caterpillar into a butterfly, from an earth-bound creature into something totally and radically different. That is how much Jesus transformed.

For us, today, this sort of transforming effect is not too uncommon. With modern stage lighting, and special effects in the movies, and fancy costuming, we here in the United States in the 21st century might be surprised, but not scared. Certainly not terrified. But, Peter, James and John knew nothing of elaborate lighting or fancy costumes, or even electricity. Imagine, if you can, what an absolutely unbelievable – preposterous – sight Jesus showed to His three disciples. Plus, Moses and Elijah showed up next to the transfigured Jesus, on top of that mountain. Far, far beyond the disciples’ experience. No wonder they were terrified!

If you remember, we had a wonderful Summer Sermon Series in 2018 where we focused on many times in the Bible where people were told, “Be not afraid!” Here is another instance of those powerful words. Powerful, because they almost always come as a result of people seeing the glory of God or the presence of an angel. Memorable, because our Lord Jesus said them to His friends, to Peter, James and John.

We might wonder: how could the disciples possibly relate to Jesus again with any sort of naturalness? Any kind of normalcy, after this clearly supernatural experience?

The answer? Jesus transformed back into regular, human form, and touched His friends. He encourages them with the words “Don’t be afraid!” By touching them and reassuring them that it was really and truly Him, just as He was before? It wasn’t the glorified, “glowing” Jesus who touched them, but the all-too-human, relatable Jesus.

The Rev. Janet Hunt tells us that, as she understands it, “when Jesus tells them to ‘get up’ he is using the same words he also used in raising the dead.  No, Jesus does not leave them there ‘dead’ in their terror and their confusion.  For while they may find themselves in the midst of something unlike anything they have ever seen before.  They may be so afraid that they are as paralyzed as though they were in fact, dead. And yet, Jesus does not leave them there.  He tells them to get up and to leave their fear behind.” [1]

Fear of what, I wonder?

  •   Fear of the unknown?
  •   Fear of the incomprehensible power of God?
  •   Fear of their own inadequacy in the glare of that overpowering bright light?

How many of us are frightened or anxious, and need to hear those words today? How many of our friends or family members find themselves in difficult places, or walking through scary situations, and could be encouraged by those words today? Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.

Sure, we, today, can be dazzled and awestruck as we see the marvelous, miraculous event unfold on the Mountain of the Transfiguration.

How much more do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from our Lord Jesus? The words of Jesus—“Be not afraid!” are surely for each of us, too.      

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/get-up-and-dont-be-afraid-revisited/

(janet@dancingwiththeword.com)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Shine the Light

“Shine the Light”

Matt 5-16 light so shine

Matthew 5:13-16 (5:16) – February 9, 2020

My family lives in Evanston, not too far from Lighthouse Beach. Yes, there is still a working lighthouse standing on the lakefront. In fact, a number of working lighthouses still are shining their lights over Lake Michigan, and the other Great Lakes. Less so today, with all the electronic and computer-assisted help, but in years past, lighthouses had an essential purpose in helping navigators stay safe on stormy water.

I suspect Jesus knew about lighthouses and navigation lights, living near the sea of Galilee as He did. Navigation lights help sailors a great deal, giving them direct knowledge and understanding about how to stay safe on the water. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about light. He’s talking directly to the people listening to Him, who I suspect are mostly His followers. And—Jesus makes this remarkable statement: “You are the light of the world.”

Some might think that our Lord Jesus is just expressing a pious platitude, or perhaps a devout wish. Oh, I wish people could be the light of the world! Wouldn’t it be nice?

However, Jesus not only is saying that about the people listening to Him at the time, 2000 years ago, but He is also saying that to everyone who reads these words in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus says those words to us, here, today. We are the light of the world.

Now, if we are light, that implies certain things. Jesus means that the world is in a state of darkness. What is it like to be in darkness, with no light? Let me tell you, when I was younger, I used to go to rural Wisconsin and do tent camping a long way away from any electric lights or settled places. It got really dark at night, and I sure was glad I had a flashlight! I suspect some of you have had similar experiences in the dark. It gets really dark at night, far from the safety of electricity and steady sources of light. It can be scary and dangerous, too.

I’ve never been out on a stormy night on the water, but I suspect people can be very scared of dangerous conditions on the ocean or on a big lake, too. That is one reason why people have depended on lighthouses and navigation lights for safety, security and direction, for many centuries.

As we have mentioned before in weeks past, light and darkness both have their places in God’s world. Darkness can be gentle and needed at times. During Advent and Epiphany, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

Except, we do not want there to be no light at all in the world, ever, and only perpetual darkness. Perpetual darkness can be a downright scary idea. Jesus told us clearly that we are the light of the world, bringing light into dark places. Can you think of times and places where light is much needed?

As I read the words of one of my favorite commentators this past week, Rev. Janet Hunt, this concept struck home to me. See whether her words strike you as true, too.

“Light helps us to distinguish difference and to celebrate diversity.

Light can deepen understanding.

Light works on cellular structures to promote growth.

Light heals.

Light helps us find our way.

Light. And today Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but I suspect Pastor Janet Hunt would absolutely agree with us when we also add lighthouses and navigation lights to the list of things that help each of us to find our way in the dark. Yes, darkness can be gentle and welcoming, but darkness is also scary, producing anxiety. Darkness can cause fear of the unknown, and even make people shrink to engage and interact. And, on dark and stormy nights on the water, we all sure are glad to see lighthouses and navigation lights that show us the way to go.   

When Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world, that means that Jesus is describing our inside nature as followers of Him. After all, He also said He is the light of the world in John chapter 8. Just as Jesus came into the world to bring light to people who walk in darkness, just so Jesus has given each of us that light. Jesus gives us power to display that light of His like a lighthouse brings light to a dark, dangerous coastline, providing hope and direction.

Now, wait, some people might say. I know that professional Christians are supposed to bring people the light of God. Professional Christians have learned how to do that in school, haven’t they? Well, yes. But, Jesus is not just talking to professionals here. Jesus means this description of our inside nature to be for all of us—for every believer in Him.

How are each of us supposed to shine the light of Jesus? That’s hard. That’s scary.

I remember a friend of mine—Miss Rose, who I’ve mentioned before. I came to know and love Miss Rose over thirty years ago at another Chicago-area church. She was a church member all of her life, and her special ministry was working with the children. She loved being a Sunday school teacher, and she would eagerly and willingly tell children and young people about the Lord. She never shied away from letting people know that she shined the light of Jesus as much as she possibly could.

When I think about this verse from Matthew 5, I often think of Miss Rose, shining the light of Jesus, and bringing hope and direction to many young people.

Imagine my delight at meeting Miss Rose again, when I was a chaplain intern at the Presbyterian Homes, a senior retirement community in Evanston. While I was in seminary, one of my field education positions was as a chaplain intern in the large healthcare unit there.

Miss Rose was a resident living there. And lo and behold, Miss Rose shared her love of the Lord with everyone in the healthcare unit. She was the light of the world in her little corner of the world. Even though she was in constant pain, Miss Rose never let that stop her shining the light of Jesus. When I grow up, I want to be like Miss Rose.  

I want to provide a challenge for all of us. As Pastor Janet Hunt says, we are all called to go into dark places with the light of Jesus. Sometimes, we are even called to shine the light of God onto an unfair or sad situation, and bring comfort, direction and friendship.

  • Where have you seen such ‘light’ bringing hope, direction, and promise to a world that is too often dark?
  • Where will you seek to bring such ‘light,’ to be such ‘light’ in the days to come? And, how might you do this together with others who are called to ‘be the light of the world’ with you?

All great questions. I pray that we might go forth from this place, all of us shining the light of Jesus in our particular corner of the world, each and every day.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/you-are-the-light-of-the-world-2/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

[I would like to thank the Rev. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his superb book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 1971). For this sermon, I have borrowed several extended ideas from Chapter Fifteen, “The Light of the World.” Thanks so much!]

 

 

 

King: Alpha and Omega

“King: Alpha and Omega”

Alpha and Omega - Jesus

Revelation 1:4b-8 (1:8), John 18:33-37 – November 25, 2018

Royalty is very…regal. Kings, queens, princes, princesses—think of this past spring, when Prince Harry married Meghan Markle. Talk about a fairy-tale wedding! For those of us in the United States who watched the wedding, it was a grand gathering of royalty from across the world, plus some Very Important Persons, from any number of places.

Royalty was very much on the mind of people throughout the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world, in the first century CE. Yes, small regional kings ruled over many tribes and areas. However, they were all subservient to the Roman Emperor, once his power reached into Africa, north into Europe, and east beyond the Fertile Crescent.

In our Gospel passage today, we have an interaction between Pilate the Roman governor of Palestine, and the prisoner Jesus. It’s just hours before Jesus is to be crucified. Yet, Pilate is all concerned about the Rabbi Jesus calling Himself a king. What’s the big deal with that?

We need to understand where the Jewish people are coming from. They want Royalty. Or, more properly speaking, a Messiah. Their nation has been subject under foreign countries for hundreds of years. They desperately yearned to be free! Free in not only a physical sense, but free in the prophetic sense, as well. In their writings there were prophecies of a Messiah, a Coming One, an Anointed One. That’s what many Jews were looking for! One who was a descendant of King David. A Messiah, a King.

Living in the United States today, we don’t have any concept of what that would be like. To be conquered, subservient to a huge foreign power. The closest thing I can think of in recent memory is the Eastern Bloc nations, the nations under Soviet rule for most of the second half of the 20th century. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Estonia, East Germany, and the other former Soviet satellite states.  All of these had local leaders and rulers. But—none of these local leaders got too big for their britches, unless they wanted to be deposed and imprisoned, and perhaps even killed.

That description is so similar to the position of the Rabbi Jesus, when He came before the Roman governor. Pilate was the Roman governor, the local voice of the Empire in Jerusalem. He had a prickly situation to handle. Yes, Pilate had to watch those stubborn, wayward Jews, and needed to manage their surly, ill-tempered leaders.

Pilate must have heard lots about Jesus! He was a miracle-worker! Healing the blind, the deaf, making food out of thin air for thousands, even raising people from the dead! Not to mention hearing about His wisdom and no-holds-barred interaction with the leaders of the Jews, priests and lawyers. What is more, the Roman governor must have heard whispers of this reactionary Rabbi possibly fulfilling the prophecies of the coming Messiah, or King.

Except, Pilate was considering kingship, power and authority from a Roman point of view. He was absolutely flabbergasted at this reactionary Rabbi. Not grasping the reins of force, power and control? What on earth is wrong with this guy?

Many people never consider the legal questions surrounding Jesus and His trials. Have you ever considered the royal power of Jesus before? If so, where was it active? Over whom did He rule? And, where was His jurisdiction?

As a typical, practical Roman, Pilate wanted to know all of those operational things, especially where Jesus had jurisdiction, power and control. Where exactly was His kingdom? Was He really King of the Jews? As if that was not enough, Pilate needed to know whether Jesus was committing treason. To set oneself up as an earthly King was plainly dangerous. As the Emperor’s representative, Pilate had to keep track of treasonous activities.

The Rabbi Jesus sidestepped Pilate’s questions.  Jesus is essentially saying that Pilate—by extension, the Roman government—does not have earthly jurisdiction in this matter.

True, Jesus said He was a king. But, Pilate is completely at a loss. Speaking from the point of view of a Roman, who considered worldly authority, control and power to be the be-all and end-all, this stuff about Jesus’s kingdom not being of this world does not compute.

This Sunday, the last Sunday in the Liturgical Year, is called Christ the King Sunday. Some call it Reign of Christ Sunday, because of negative connotations of the male image of “king.” But, Jesus turned the concept of “king” on its head. What Jesus meant by “king” is something so far away from the Roman concept of King and Emperor. Jesus’s concept is totally out of this world. A cosmic idea of King, of Ruler of the whole universe.

Our Gospel reading today tells us what Jesus is not. He is not an earthly King. He does not hold absolute, manipulative, soul-sucking power-over the other humans in the world. The reading from Revelation 1 lets us know exactly who Jesus is, and what He does.

Jesus did call Himself a king when talking to Pilate. He did mention His royal power is not of this world. He communicates the other-worldly nature of the reign of Christ, that cosmic King of Kings who is, and was, and is to come. A commentator mentioned that “The sovereign essence of God is amplified by such epithets as “the Alpha and the Omega,… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty (Revelation 1:8). These names and titles of God subvert claims of Roman Emperors. Contemporary readers of Revelation are also summoned to be aware of the dangers of imperial portraits seen in advertisements, political propaganda, and political party promises.” [1] Thus, the reign of Christ is subversive, in the eyes of this world. I rarely mention politics directly in my sermons, but these two bible passages today are specifically political. We can view the Rabbi Jesus as the reactionary leader of a downtrodden minority rabble, arrested at midnight and in handcuffs in front of a kangaroo court early one morning. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, to proclaim Jesus Christ as King of Kings is a subversive act.

A seminary professor related, “One of my students is an Anglican priest from South Africa. Not long ago he shared a story about what it was like to believe Jesus was King during the days of apartheid. “Our whole congregation was arrested,” he said, “for refusing to obey the government.” I thought I misheard him, but he went on to say that all 240 members of the congregation were arrested and put in jail — from babies to a 90-year-old man. “At least babies and mothers were kept together,” he added. The pastor himself was imprisoned for a year. To claim that Jesus is King can be dangerous.” [2]

That is exactly what I proclaim here. Jesus Christ is King of Kings, Ruler of the universe, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. Who is, and who was, and who is to come.

“Jesus is a king who never rose so high that He couldn’t see those who were down low. Even today, we see Jesus in tent cities where people live together after losing their homes to foreclosure. We see Jesus in public housing where people are still waiting for the power to come on after the storm. We see Jesus in shelters where women have sought refuge from abusers.

If we would see Jesus, we will look in places kings seldom go.” [3]

It is not enough to see Jesus. He calls us to follow Him, too.

Be subversive! Tell people about Jesus, the reactionary Rabbi, King of Kings. Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. Amen, alleluia.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2825

Commentary, Revelation 1:4b-8, Isarel Kamudzandu, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016.

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-kay-lundblad/john-18-33-37-a-different-kind-of-king_b_2166819.html

“A Different Kind of King,” Barbara K. Lundblad, ON Scripture, Odyssey Networks, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Hope and Wholeness

“Hope and Wholeness”

Mark 1-27 Jesus-the-divine

Mark 1:21-28 (1:27) – January 28, 2018

A common saying is “You only have one chance to make a first impression.” How true that is! A close parallel is beginning a new position. A great deal is riding on that first impression, the first few days or weeks at a new job, the first major thing or statement a prominent person does or says.

Our Gospel reading today from Mark chapter 1 happens at the very beginning of the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry. Jesus is beginning this new position as an itinerant rabbi, traveling around the countryside, preaching and teaching. What else does Mark include here? This is a narrative of an important first thing that this prominent person Jesus says and does, setting the tone for the rest of Mark’s Gospel. I’d like to thank bible commentator Paul Berge for his fictional first-person account, which is a narrative adaptation of this first miracle of Jesus.

“Were you at the synagogue in Capernaum today? I wasn’t sure I saw you and so I will tell you as clearly as I can what happened. I can only explain that something occurred that has never, yes, never ever happened before in our hometown synagogue where our people “gather together.” What took place is unlike anything our rabbis have instructed us in over the years. This was far beyond their teaching and authority.

“Shabbot worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now, don’t get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine. Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer “immediately” entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new “authority” (Greek, exousia). His authority was not as our scribes. When I use the word “authority” about his teaching, you know that the word also includes the power to “exorcize” demonic spirits.

“I am still in shock as to what happened next. “Immediately” a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? Did the voice really assume that this teacher has the authority to exorcize demonic or unclean spirits?

“The scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” With this a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue as these words were spoken. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, and the identity of the Holy One of God. Jesus addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, “Be silent, and come out of him.”

“What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and the man appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.

“Needless to say, we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority he exorcizes a demonized person!” What took place we saw with our own eyes that he commanded even a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath, this is what took place on this Shabbot. I can’t explain what came over us, but it was like we gave witness to the rabbi from Nazareth as our praise to the one, holy and righteous God in our midst. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue “immediately” spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” [1]

Do you hear what Jesus did? He cast the unclean, evil spirit out of the man, and made him whole again. Gave him a new lease on hope and wellness. Gave the man the gift of emotional, psychological and mental wholeness, of abundant life itself.

Not everyone believes that Jesus casts out evil, unclean spirits from people, in the spiritual realm. Some people are very skeptical about this kind of miracle. But, I would like to remind everyone that belief in evil spirits has been a common, widespread belief for thousands of years. It does not as much matter that many people of the 21st century don’t believe that Jesus did this. The point is that the people of New Testament times did believe in the power and authority of the Rabbi Jesus. Power to cast out unclean spirits.

For thousands of years, society has dealt with different kinds of mental, emotional and psychological issues in individuals. Sometimes, these issues and illnesses have been called spiritual and demonic. From what we now know, these conditions can be medical. These people with illnesses and issues sometimes seem to be held hostage to internal, powerful forces only recently understood.

Regardless of whether the illness or issue was emotional, physical, psychological or spiritual, Jesus came alongside of this man with an unclean spirit. Maybe Jesus was the first who had approached the man in a long time. Jesus, with holy power and authority, ordered the evil spirit out of the man. And, immediately, the man was cured.

Was it really and truly an “evil spirit?” In this case, as in certain other situations in the Gospels, My opinion is, “yes.” There are a great many situations which are spiritually energized, throughout the world. Both positive and negative, concerning good and evil spirits.

But, that is not the only thing. No, there are negative tendencies, urgings, and thoughts people get in their heads, on their insides. An explosion of anger, over and over. A suicidal impulse or thought. An intense jealousy, suddenly flaring. A wild sexual fantasy that returns again and again. An overwhelming feeling of depression and dread, creeping into the deepest places inside. We, as human beings, are keenly aware of these unwelcome, unclean spirits in our hearts and inner thoughts. We often wonder where these “unclean thoughts” come from and why we can’t get rid of them. It is as if they are part of our inner nature as human beings. [2]

It does not matter whether our issues are psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, or some combination, Jesus can come alongside of us. Jesus has the power and authority to take care of the situation and restore hope and wholeness. Yes, in this situation in Mark’s Gospel, with this troubled young man. And, yes, in a multitude of various situations, today, too.

Today, you and I are often ashamed of individuals such as this troubled man. We tend not to speak of it. We fear the misunderstanding or the judgment or avoidance we expect we will surely see in the eyes of others. Or, hesitate to choose to whom we dare to entrust that which hurts us the most. [3] Whether we name it evil spirits, mental disturbance, emotional instability, addiction, or something else, Jesus can overcome. Jesus can provide healing, hope and wholeness, whatever the situation. Yes, in Mark’s gospel, and yes, in all of our lives, today.

(A big thank you to Dr. Paul Berge, who wrote the adapted first-person account of this Scripture reading from Mark 1:21-28. Thank you for this writing, and for your excellent insights from your Gospel commentary!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1122

Commentary, Mark 1:21-28, Paul S. Berge, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2012.

[2] http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_hunger_for_healingGA.htm  “Hunger for Healing,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/out-in-the-open-casting-out-unclean-spirits/ Janet H. Hunt.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Come to Serve

“Come to Serve”

Mark 10-45 serve all

Mark 10:34-45 – October 18, 2015

It’s October in Chicago, and sports teams are a common topic of conversation! Look at the Cubs: a great number of people are rooting for them in the National League championship games, and not just in Chicago, either! Not to mention the Black Hawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions. A lot of people want to get close to these very important people. Just to rub shoulders with greatness. Being close to someone on top.

This is similar to what was happening in our Gospel reading for today. James and John took their Rabbi Jesus aside, to ask Him something privately.

Now, I wanted to make sure that everyone here was aware that lots of people saw Jesus as an earthly King. Everyone recognize that? Because, it helps us to make sense out of what James and John are asking Jesus. The closer that people are to a king or a ruler, the more important they are. The more power and importance they hold. It’s like rubbing shoulders with greatness. The whole reflected glory thing.

So, James and John ask their Rabbi to let them sit on His right and left hands, when He gets to glory. In essence, to be His right hand (and left hand) guys! They not only want to be considered important by everyone else, they want their own share of Jesus’ reflected glory!

That isn’t how it works, friends. Have I mentioned before that these disciples just don’t get it? We can see from their repeated words and conversations that they just don’t understand Jesus and what He is consistently and persistently teaching.

Let’s break it down. Jesus doesn’t get mad. Instead, He patiently goes over the same ground, again. Repeats what He has said a number of times before, and now He adds a new twist. A further caution about traveling with Him, all the way to the Cross.

As we continue to consider this section from the Gospel of Mark, we slam into the horrified reaction of the other ten disciples to what James and John had asked of Jesus. If your brother or sister or good friend had gone behind your back, and tried to get preferential treatment, don’t you think you might have gotten angry, too? Sneaking around and trying to do things under the radar is not okay. No matter how James and John might have justified it.

Jesus turns from this private conversation, and calls all the disciples together to give them a short recap on the Gentiles—the Romans—the worldly way of dealing with pre-eminence, greatness, and authority.

I’m going to take a detour and tell you about a church I attended for a time while I was at seminary. Smaller church, here in the north suburbs of Chicago. The church was going to have a clean-up day in the nursery and small children’s area, after the morning worship service. The Sunday school and children’s ministry people had been planning it for a number of weeks. A number of people had dressed for church with their cleaning clothes on, blue jeans and t-shirts. People even sent out for sandwiches for a quick lunch.

My husband Kevin approved of the clean-up; our children weren’t that far beyond that age group. We couldn’t stay after service that day, but said our good-byes to the cleaners. On our way out, we ran into the associate pastor. She had delivered the sermon that morning and worn her robes up front in church. However, she had transformed; she had changed into blue jeans and a sweatshirt. She had a bucket and a spray bottle of cleanser in her hands, and cheerfully wished us well as we went off to the next event.

My husband’s opinion of that pastor rose at least 75 percent that day. Maybe more. He told me how impressed and pleased he was to see that she was willing to go to work without blowing her own horn. Willing to get her hands dirty for the church, and not just look pastoral and holy up front in the sanctuary. She was willing to be a servant, as well as a leader!

To get back to Jesus and the disciples, Jesus reminds them about the common attitude of the day. How the Gentiles, and especially the Romans, thought about leaders. How these worldly people wanted to be “first” and “greatest,” “lording it over” their underlings. These puffed-up people often seized authority as tyrants! Not the way Jesus acted, at all. Jesus reminds them that the Kingdom of God is decidedly different from the pagan kingdoms of the world.

How did Jesus say we ought to lead? How did Jesus say we ought to be “first” and “great?” I’m going back to what I preached on, two and three weeks ago. Remember how I said that the disciples just did not get what Jesus was telling them? Here, He’s telling them again. Just as Jesus embraced and welcomed children, and raised up vulnerable, disregarded children as an object lesson for the disciples, in the same way Jesus repeats what Godly leadership looks like.

Here Jesus is challenging all of society’s expectations! All of His followers’ expectations and understanding, too! How to be great, in God’s eyes? To be a leader? To be first among your fellows? Jesus said: be a servant. Even more, be a slave, working for others with no expectation of reward or honor.

Not only did Jesus turn society’s expectations of heavy-handed leadership on its head, He also was going against all ideas of political domination. If a Jewish leader were truly humble, and a true servant-leader, what would that do to Roman authority over a conquered province? Could it even affect or subvert the imbalance of military power over the subjugated people of Palestine? Imagine, all with non-violent methods, using servant-leadership.

Which brings me back to reflecting on Jesus’ words in verses 43 and 44: “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Just as one of my fellow ministers said in the online sermon board I follow, she is more than willing to scrub toilets, print the Sunday bulletins and make grilled cheese sandwiches for her church’s weekly soup and sandwich supper. But, getting back to where I started this sermon, this concept of leader as servant of all turns all worldly ideas of leadership upside down!

Can you imagine someone of Michael Jordan or Donald Trump or Oprah’s stature scrubbing toilets? Or washing dishes? What about Pope Francis? Is it easier to think of the humble, genuine Francis doing menial labor? I suspect so.

It isn’t only servant-leadership.

Some people here might be saying to themselves, I am not a leader. I don’t need to consider this, because Jesus is only talking to people in leadership positions.

But, what about regular folks in the pews? To follow Jesus means having a whole paradigm shift on doing relationships. What is your idea of relationships? How does it square up with the examples worldly society raises up?

Here’s a challenge. I invite all of you—each of you in the congregation to think of one specific circumstance in the coming week when you might step aside from being number one to let somebody else go first. It could be getting in line at the grocery store, letting someone pass you while driving on Waukegan or Golf or Dempster, allowing a husband/wife/friend get a word in a conversation, or complimenting someone for doing a task better than you or I could.

There are lots of ways to be a servant. Be kind. Be helpful. Be of service. Let others go first, cheerfully! Why? Because Jesus told us to. Jesus showed us how to do it. Let’s follow His example!

Alleluia, amen.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!