Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Mark 10:32-45 - The Upside-Down Kingdom

As Jesus' ministry is leading to something big, the disciples are vying for position. James and John (with support from their mother according to Matthew 20) put their bid in for top positions under Jesus' rule.

Don't we all feel the pull? We long for significance, to be seen as someone special. But Jesus says the one who wants to be great must become a servant.

In one of his novels from the 19th century, George MacDonald has a character speculate that in heaven serving others will be the highest goal. Every citizen of that kingdom will seek ways to serve.  The one who excels in service will be held in high regard.

What a different value system that is from the one we live in. Can you imagine if the service industry commanded the highest regard and wages in our society? Housekeepers and janitors would be highly sought after and paid a premium. Taxi drivers would be seen as community leaders. Wait staff at restaurants would be generously compensated according to their skill at serving others. Those being waited on would be aware of how lazy and unproductive they appeared compared to the clean, industrious character of those waiting on them. They would be expected to value not only every act of service they received but the extraordinary grace of those rendering that service.

That's not the type of world we live in now, but as citizens of the kingdom of God can we nurture that value system within ourselves? Can we see those serving us as offering prime examples of the lifestyle to which we aspire?

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

We tried... but we couldn't do it.

Mark 9:14-29

Peter, James, and John were up on the mountain with Jesus having a fantastic experience.  The rest of the twelve disciples were left behind.  Not on a mountain.  No spiritual high for them.  They were down in the lowlands trying unsuccessfully to heal a boy brought to Jesus. Unsuccessfully is the key word here.  They tried, but accomplished nothing.  Rather than healing the boy, they ended up standing around arguing with the teachers of the law.

It's not as though they hadn't cast out demons before.  In chapter 6, Mark tells us Jesus sent out the Twelve in pairs with "authority over unclean spirits."  Mark 6:13 says: "They drove out many demons and anointed sick people with oil and healed them."  But that was then and this was now.  As any good investment firm will tell you concerning stocks, "Past performance does not necessarily indicate future results."

What made the difference? Why were they powerless in this case?  When they asked Jesus about it he said, "This kind can come out only by prayer."


How much prayer?  What kind of prayer?  Is he talking about prayer in the moment when one faces the unclean spirit or an ongoing prayer life that prepares one for facing many things, including unclean spirits?

And what does Jesus mean by, "This kind..."?  Is he referencing the type of "unclean spirits" that cause what we would now call epileptic fits?  Are they different from other unclean spirits?  Is epilepsy particularly difficult to heal by miraculous means?

Whatever is happening here, I can certainly identify with failure when trying to make a difference in my world. Not that I have often tried to cast out unclean spirits or cure epilepsy, but I have longed to see a miracle in the lives of those who are suffering.  Now, as then, I suspect prayer is the key.  As I pray for those around me to the point of moving into their suffering, I am changed in ways that gradually start to make a difference.

Much of the physical healing Jesus did in 1st-century Palestine would be handled by modern medicine today.  The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk!  Still, we need miracles in our world.  We are desperate for inner healing.  Unclean spirits manifest themselves in the form of addictions, emotional turmoil, anger, and abusive attitudes.

Miraculous physical healing when we grow weary of doctors and physical ailments would be wonderful, wouldn't it? But how much more important is spiritual healing?  Is that where we should be focusing our prayers?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Way of the Cross -- February 14, 2016

Scripture focus:  Mark 8:27-9:1

John the Baptist was dead. This son of Jesus' mother's relative and close friend, only a few months older than Jesus. When Jesus began his ministry he went to John to be baptized. Some of Jesus' disciples were first John's disciples. When John was imprisoned he sent a message to Jesus asking if he was “the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). He was sitting in prison and wanted to make sure he was on the right track. Now his ministry was over. He had criticized King Herod for marrying his sister-in-law and it cost him his life.

Imagine the grief Jesus must have felt. John the Baptist, his friend, his relative, that voice crying in the wilderness, now silenced forever.

In last week's session we found Jesus looking for a chance to get alone with God for some serious prayer time after hearing the news of John's death. When crowds of people followed him to his solitary place, however, he had compassion on them. He taught them. When he realized they were hungry, he multiplied a few loaves and fish to feed them. Then he sent them away and continued on to his time of prayer. It was following that time in the presence of almighty God that he was so uplifted he could walk on water.

Now Jesus is with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, away from the crowds in Galilee. He's about to break the news to them. He realizes that, like John the Baptist, he is on a path that will lead to death sooner rather than later.

Many times we are reluctant to see Jesus as fully human. We see him as all-knowing, fully aware of his life's path from the moment he comes to John for baptism if not before. But what if this was not the case? What if he was finding his way like the rest of us through prayer and meditation, dependent on the guidance of the Spirit of God for every decision along the way? What if it wasn't until he heard of the death of John and turned to the Father in his grief that he realized he too was headed toward a violent end?

We have been talking about the many ways Jesus didn't follow the expected pattern. His was new wine. Here he becomes even more surprising, talking about the coming end of his life instead of plans for years of successful ministry. No wonder Peter tried to persuade him to think again. Are we prepared for unexpected shifts as we follow Jesus? Will we follow him even if it means giving up the life we have planned? For most of us, our faith is unlikely to lead to directly to a physical death any time soon, but there are many other ways to die.

Slipped into this message is the promise of life on the other side of death. Does that promise make death -- physical or metaphorical -- any easier? What do you think?

Friday, January 10, 2014

What you have looks GOOOODDD!

Adultery -- having sexual relations with another man's wife.  In a patriarchal society everything is from the man's perspective.  If the command "love you neighbor as yourself" summarizes God's law concerning human relationships, it's not difficult to see that having sexual relations with the neighbor's wife is near the top of unloving acts toward that neighbor.  Once again, however, Jesus moves from the outward action to the inner intent.  If a man's eye and imagination lingers over the figure of his neighbor's wife, is he not already failing to love and honor his neighbor?

In our sex-focused society we tend to dwell on the lust here rather than the endangered relationship between the two men involved.  Jesus is focusing on that relationship.  The woman and the sexual desire are not central to the message we need to hear.  The message is this:  Loving one's neighbor goes beyond actions and involves what is happening in our hearts.

Will I care enough about my neighbor to refrain from gazing lustfully on what he has and focus on loving him as a person?  And, in our society where women are recognized as people in their own right, will I love her as a person?  Will I look past her desirable looks and confident, flirty manner and see and value and love the person within?  If her husband or something else she has is attractive to me will I still see her as a valuable individual in her own right apart from those "things" that stir up desire within me?

Any application of this passage that moves away from the underlying principle of love for one's neighbor -- in this case the husband of the desirable woman -- may contain valuable lessons supported by other passages of scripture, but seems to me to miss what Jesus is really saying.  Love is not just an action verb; it goes much deeper than that to confront the covetous, dishonoring thoughts within us.

Friday, January 03, 2014

You're Killing Me!

In last week's passage (Matthew 5:17-20), Jesus spoke of the law as a whole.  This week we look at the first of six specific examples.  It comes straight from the Ten Commandments:  Thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13 KJV).

There have always been exceptions to that command, some of which are included in the law itself.  Multiple violations were punishable by stoning.  To death.  Capital punishment is part of the same law that forbids taking the life of another.  On top of that, there are the later conquests by the Israelites when God commanded that no lives be spared.

Instead of examining the exceptions, however, when taking a life is a legitimate action by an individual or nation, Jesus goes deeper, into the heart that fails to value the lives of others.  He speaks of words that take life from others.

When I tell someone they are a fool, I show disregard for the fragile soul within that person.  I don't care that my pronouncement is killing something precious within the other person.  Their fragile inner life is of no concern to me.  I congratulate myself on my ability to identify foolish acts and the people who commit them.  And as I toss the word "fool" around something dies within the heart of those who are unable to refute my words for whatever reason.  I kill their confidence, their joy, their dignity as a person.  My words crush their spirit.

But, really, hellfire?  For calling someone a fool?  For recognizing that someone is acting foolishly and telling them straight up?  What's up with that?

I find it helpful to view hell not as some faraway place and time but having the same characteristics as the kingdom of God -- "now and not yet".  Hell is already present in this life in the form of unpleasant consequences for straying from the law of God.

So ... how does sucking the life out of someone by labeling them as a fool cause me to feel the fire of hell coming too close for comfort?  Several ways.  When I label someone as a fool it puts distance between us.  There is a rift in our relationship.  They are hurt, dying inside; I am triumphant over them.  We are both dealing with a broken relationship.  We are no longer relaxed companions on a journey.  Which leaves us both more isolated than we were before.  Loneliness is hell.  When I diminish others in a way that prompts them to draw back from me, my own life is diminished because I have fewer (if any) strong, healthy relationships.  I too die a little inside as a result of my disregard for the inner life of others and their intrinsic worth in my world.

Murder, extinguishing life in another, goes way beyond physical death.  Jesus is taking us deeper, fleshing out -- fulfilling -- the law by driving into the principles behind it.  He is labeling all aspects of life as "FRAGILE:  Handle with Care!"

What do you think?  Have words and actions from others caused you to die a little inside?  Does that make them murderers?  Have you ever been guilty of murder when seen in this light?  I have.  And it's something I deeply regret and for which I need forgiveness and grace.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

More righteous than these

The SALT group at the Odon Church of the Nazarene has been going through the Sermon on the Mount on Sunday mornings. The past two weeks have been about being salt and light in the world. We're now ready for Matthew 5:17-20.  It will be our topic of discussion for Sunday morning, December 29th.

From the NIV:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

What radical stuff this is! How could anyone possibly be more righteous than the Pharisees and teachers of the law? They were the most righteous people around! If you weren't already aware of that fact, all you had to do was ask them. They spent more energy studying and observing the law handed down from Moses than anyone. As I once heard a pastor tell a new convert who was asking too many questions, "The difference between us is that I have been schooled in these matters and you have not." Matter settled. The authority on Scripture had spoken.

And yet ... Jesus said we needed to do better. How is this possible?

In his exposition on Matthew for The Interpreter's Bible, George A. Buttrick suggests four dimensions of deficiency to the righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes.

1. "Their righteousness was not long enough. It had no reach... They drew their robes tightly around them to avoid contamination."

2. "Their righteousness was not broad enough. Too often their religion narrowed itself down to prohibitions."

3. "Their righteousness was not deep enough... They had no deep-probing eyes of love" -- to detect pure motives behind a person's actions that might not meet the letter of the law.

4. "Their righteousness was not high enough. It was satisfied; it had no 'beyond' to beckon it, no risks, no aspiration, no abandon of worship. It was a low-vaulted and formal righteousness."

All of those four deficiencies have substance to them, but I am particularly drawn to the last. I have seen multiple examples of people lowering the bar for righteousness so that their current condition meets the goal. "Well, of course, we can't be expected to be gentle and kind when we're having a bad day! It's simply human to snap at people under such conditions." Rather than lowering the standards to fit where I am, I am much more excited to think about the possibilities of where I can be in days to come. Of course, this requires trust in God's grace to accept me where I am until I can more up higher, but, fortunately, grace is freely offered during these, our growing years.

What do you think? Which, if any, of the four "not enough" statements most speaks to you?

Other thoughts on the passage?

Feel free to comment here or on Facebook (if you came here from there) or at the Odon Church of the Nazarene, 633 East Elnora Street in Odon, Indiana, at 9:30 on Sunday morning.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Crucifixion and Mockery

"The Hunger Games" came out in theaters last week. My husband has seen the trailer and is put off by the violence. He who enjoys action shows and whose television viewing often subjects me, in the next room, to sounds of seemingly endless terror and screaming, is recommending that we skip this movie because of the violence. I, on the other hand, have read the book and am seriously considering watching the movie, even though I generally avoid shows with violence. The book series is part of a larger discussion and the movie is now part of the discussion.

To watch or skip "The Hunger Games" is a choice. To encounter or avoid the gruesome details of crucifixion may not be a choice this coming week. Holy Week often subjects me to far more detail of death by crucifixion than is necessary for me to appreciate Jesus' sacrifice in going to the cross. I am so put off by the horror of it no room is left to contemplate the significance of it. It's too gruesome and unbearable to get my mind around.

What is often left out of those graphic descriptions of Jesus' death is the mockery that is described with more detail than the crucifixion in the gospels. In a way, that is a blessing. I can identify better with the strong emotions stirred up by mocking and better admire Jesus' strength in having the resources to silence his tormentors and not using those resources.

I have never been physically tortured but I have certainly experienced scorn and disdain. I am familiar with the inner response that would give almost anything to turn the tables on those laughing, particularly when they are completely ignorant of the facts behind what they see. How grateful I am that those who insist on filling in the blanks concerning the crucifixion, assuming horror will endear the crucified Jesus to me, generally look right past the mockery and allow me to take that mental journey on my own.

I'm sure many people discount the mockery as insignificant compared to the horror of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer agony until death provides a final escape from pain. But it's Jesus' ability to let his mockers have the last word that day which makes me say, "Hallelujah! What a Savior!"