Get on Mission!

Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

If you were in 11 a.m. worship at Luminary UMC last week, you heard me express despair during the prayer time. Something stirred in me as I made several rat-a-tat observations: poor attendance in worship of late, our average age, and our general lack of success in reaching the many people around us who need to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Several of you nodded in agreement.

That low moment in my heart did turn into a good week of prayerful learning. I was in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., most of the week, at a continuing education program we call Ministers’ Convocation. The theme was most appropriate, centered on how we establish the appropriate church culture in difficult circumstances. And let me tell you, folks, our circumstances aren’t nearly as difficult as some.

I also had today’s text in mind, and all sorts of concepts seemed to come together as I considered the words of my colleagues, this story of Jesus and his followers, and plans we have for our near future.

We could sum our text up this way: Peter got off mission, and Jesus let Peter have it. Then Jesus proceeded to unload on the disciples and the crowd tagging along behind them, just in case they also were not understanding the hard work and sacrifices that must be made, first by Jesus and then by his followers.

At the time Jesus was speaking, there was immediate work to be done to make the arrival of the Kingdom of God possible. He had to suffer, be killed by his own people’s leaders, and then rise from the dead.

It seems Peter thought Jesus needed to tone down the frank, negative-sounding talk. Jesus called him Satan, indicating how far Peter was from God’s plan.

Beyond the immediate mission, Jesus also indicated there would be long-term work to be done by his followers. And it would get messy for them, too.

We have to stand up for the truth. We have to tell the story. If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, we are going to have to make some sacrifices in finances, in pride, in reputation and even in our sense of safety as we reach out to those around us.

Some of us may even be called to sacrifice our lives. In the soft kind of Christianity we so often practice in America, martyrdom seldom happens, and we forget just how many Christians sacrifice their lives for their faith on a daily basis.

Martyrdom is how far we might be called to go, however. The phrase “take up your cross” certainly has connotations of impending death. If that bothers you, at least try to cling to another of Jesus’ prominent teachings, “Fear not.”

It’s not a great message for the church brochure or the sign out front, is it? “Hey, come suffer and maybe even die with us!” But out of such intense commitment to the mission of the church comes a kind of greatness we struggle now to imagine.

I’ll tell you two ways your Luminary church leaders have decided you can individually dive back into the church’s mission this year. If we do these two things right, with God’s blessing, we may not be feeling so much despair in a few months. And there’s an extremely good chance you won’t have to die to do these things.

First, we are forming Life Groups at Luminary, details of which we have already heard. The risk here is making ourselves vulnerable to people we don’t know as we invite them to these groups. While we certainly will benefit from the experience ourselves, these groups are in many ways for people who are not yet part of our church.

Second is an idea new to many of you. Just last week, our Church Leadership Council approved what we’re currently calling the Summer Music Program.

Again, it’s great if our children and grandchildren attend, but what we’re really hoping to do is reach unchurched people around us by offering the gift of music, a gift we love so dearly here. For two weeks, children will have the opportunity to learn about Jesus through different kinds of music, regardless of how much singing or instrumental ability they may have.

Again, for us the risk is opening ourselves to people we don’t know, people who may be very different from us. There also are rewards to being on mission, however, even before the whole eternal life thing kicks in.

We will make friends and draw in people who will bring new spiritual gifts, making our community more dynamic. We will develop a sense that what we have now as a church will continue after we have passed on. And we will take joy in knowing we have done what we said we would do when we took on the title, “Christian.”

I conclude today with a modern parable. In short, it tells the story of a seacoast lifesaving station that evolved into a club, ultimately leaving people to drown. If you haven’t heard this story, take time to experience it here.

We exist for one reason, folks. We save people from eternal death. It is the only reason we exist; we are not a club.

People are drowning all around us in a sea of pain, pain from drug abuse, from broken homes and damaged relationships, and from the general, pervasive presence of evil that remains in the world.

Find your boat and start rowing!

The featured image is James Tissot’s “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” circa 1890.

Don’t Be Shushed

Mark 10:46-52

We’ve all had that experience of someone trying to shush us. A “shush” is more severe than a polite request to hush; behind a shush there is a tone of command, perhaps even an implied threat.

“Shush,” my mother would say when she could see I was about to backtalk her in a big way. The back of her hand would move quickly toward my mouth, close enough for me to feel the breeze but never quite touching me. I was blessed with a mother who never would have hit me in such a way, but in the moment of doubt I experienced, I shushed.

The crowd in our story was doing something similar to blind Bartimaeus, but he was in no way backtalking anyone. Shush, they were saying. There is something important going on here. We’re moving on to big things. Don’t make us come over there and shush you, Bartimaeus.

You have to understand what was happening—revolution was in the air. Jesus was at his peak of popularity. The crowd, ultimately fickle but now cheering him on, followed him, ready to begin the 17-mile hike from Jericho to Jerusalem, where they were sure everything would change. This great prophet would be king, the Romans would be cast out, and the Jews would once again be a great people.

Jesus had been talking of great mysteries, using kingdom language as he spoke. A couple of the disciples were so impressed, they had begun to lobby for cabinet positions in Jesus’ court; who among them would be the greatest?

Jesus had tried to correct this view, in particular among his disciples. He had told them plainly he was going to Jerusalem to die—in hearing that, how did they fail to grasp victory would not be easy? He had told them repeatedly all of this was about the least. In this victory, there would be no sheep left behind.

But there the crowd was, shushing Bartimaeus. All the poor beggar asked was to receive what many in the crowd had sought and received, mercy in one form or another. In his case, he wanted to see again.

To their credit, when the people saw Jesus was interested in Bartimaeus, they stopped shushing him and started encouraging him. That’s the correct behavior for a kingdom march. You look around you. You see who needs to come along, and you pay particular attention to those who want in, regardless of their status.

We’re on our own kingdom march, aren’t we? Some of us look to Jesus and say, “There’s our Lord, there’s our king.” And we follow him.

We know that Jesus ultimately ended up crucified and buried. We also know he rose from that death, and out of that resurrection victory everything did change, in ways far greater than that crowd heading from Jericho to Jerusalem could have imagined.

We march together now toward a time of perfect peace and healing. We march toward the end of the reign of evil and death, replaced by the eternal rule of the one who is right and just.

And thanks in part to Bartimaeus’ story, we know the march is for everyone who wants to join. No one is to be shushed.

Some of you may not be sure you’re wanted along on the march. You’ve lived on the margins for awhile. You don’t quite fit in; you cannot figure out how anyone would ever think of you as “Christian.” Maybe your past sins seem too big. Maybe you think you lack status, job, money, or clothes necessary to fit in.

Don’t be shushed. Christ’s mercy is for you, too.

Some of you are clearly with the crowd, ready to march on. Those of you at my current appointment, Luminary UMC, are the best I have ever seen at welcoming and accepting people of all kinds. I have quickly come to love this church for its openness. But I say all that to lead up to this: Even we can do better.

I’ve been amused the last few months as I’ve watched a couple of people enter our building wearing “do-rags,” those bandannas folded and tied to cover the head. (One was actually an acquaintance of mine.) For some reason, some of you shrink back when a stranger walks in wearing one. I even heard a couple of people whisper hoarsely, “Who’s that?”

Let’s not be shushing people with our words or body language. Each one may be a modern-day Bartimaeus in a bandanna, seeking God’s mercy.

When our march ends, we’re all going to be surprised at the people Jesus reached. And remember, there probably will be people who will be surprised to see you and me there.

Woman with glasses, piercings, headscarf, and cellphone (Spain, 2013)

The God of Little Things

Mark 4:26-34

Yes, the devil can be in the details. But God is there, too.

There are lots of places a preacher can go with Mark’s seed-related parables. I want to focus on one fascinating, comforting takeaway. The infinite being, the one mighty enough to make and stand outside the entire universe, has a powerful interest in what looks to us like the little parts of creation.

We actually have two parables here, but both focus on the mystery of life, the kind of life that sustains other life, a nurturing presence springing forth from the seemingly insignificant. No matter how technically sophisticated or scientific we become, a seed remains a wonder, bringing out childlike curiosity in most people.

We tend to think of spiritual beings acting for good or evil in grand, sweeping ways. The last time I preached, we talked about a vision of God’s majesty—his angels alone are enough to overwhelm. Jesus is reminding us that the battle between good and evil also occurs on a level we might consider “small,” although I wonder if such concepts as “big” and “small” mean much on that spiritual plane of existence.

Indeed, the devil seems to enjoy thinking small. Often, small is where he can do the most damage. All we have to do is think of a cancer cell, a malformation in a strand of DNA, to understand how evil can do great damage at a tiny level.

And yet, God promises his kingdom is erupting from similarly small places, spreading and growing until evil is ultimately destroyed. As we learn more about physics, it seems the universe’s tiniest parts are wired with God’s will, undergirding God’s plan. For example, quantum physics tells us that if two tiny particles ever interact with each other in a process called “entanglement,” they continue to influence each other, no matter how far they separate. From a theological perspective, this can say much about the power of relationships and prayer.

God’s emphasis on the small also says much about our need to pay attention to the little things, what we sometimes call the details. As Christians, we are quickest to have this conversation if talking about work ethic.

And work ethic is important. As I thought about this, my mind went to some news stories I’ve read in recent years about the discovery of the Titanic’s wreckage. Researchers have even recovered some of the pieces, and it has become clear the problem with the great ship was not in her massive decks, stacks or bulkheads, but in her tiniest parts. Her rivets were not manufactured properly, making them brittle and prone to shatter upon impact with an iceberg or any other solid object. Someone somewhere failed to pay attention to something small, and havoc ensued.

The importance of detail is true in our spiritual lives, too. I’m not saying we have to become obsessive, but we do have to pay attention to what may seem like the small aspects of our lives.

Are we allowing God to work through us in the small places? Is he the God of our world’s details?

How we interact with a child who can barely talk may not seem like an important practical matter. The child cannot hire us, fire us or affect us in any real way. But like seeds, children have tremendous power to bloom into something great in God’s kingdom. Words, looks and actions can be either water or herbicide to them. Our actions and words should tell them about the love of Jesus Christ even before they can say his name.

What we do with the socially small, the people with no influence or power, also is one of the great tests of how we are doing as Christians. Jesus worked through such people, choosing them to be his disciples, to share his power and perform his miracles. Ignoring them is very much like ignoring Christ, the source of eternal life.

And then there are the little details of our personal lives. Do we treat them as being important to God? Do we consult him through prayer and Scripture in the small things, or do we wait to run to him when the devil’s little cancer cell has reproduced and grown massive? Perhaps this is the deepest meaning of praying without ceasing, reaching a point where God’s will guides every second of our lives.

We are called to be mindful that nothing in creation is “small.” All of creation has the potential to glorify God; that means in all things great and small, there are infinite possibilities.

A Curse Reversed

Mark 16:1-8

Many scholars think the original version of the Gospel of Mark ends with its three women witnesses to the resurrection fleeing from the empty tomb. “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the closing line reads.

Yes, in all of our Bibles, there is more there in Mark, brief accounts of Christ’s resurrection appearances, his instructions and even his ascension. You don’t have to be an expert, however, to see how the writing seems different, how everything beyond verse 8 feels added on in some way. Indeed, the extra material cannot be found in most of the oldest manuscripts, and most good translations today mark “for they were afraid” as the original ending of Mark.

It makes for a relatively bleak Easter account, one noticeably different from the other gospels, where Jesus appears repeatedly, comforting his followers and offering them peace. The author of Mark may have been deliberately trying to communicate a different idea, however. His ending captured something we sometimes miss, the fear that must have run through Jerusalem when word of the empty tomb first began to spread.

Let me illustrate. I’m going to tell you a story that’s not exactly biblical. When you consider a couple of incidents that are in the Bible, however, a version of this story very well could have happened.

You may recall from Matthew that when Jesus was before Pontius Pilate to be sentenced to death, Pilate was reluctant to send Jesus to the cross, believing him innocent. Pilate passed sentence only because he felt politically pressured to do so. He also performed a symbolic act, however. He ritually washed his hands to show he did not consider himself guilty of Jesus’ death.

As he washed his hands, he declared to the crowd, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”

We are told the crowd answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” For all practical purposes, they were calling down curses on themselves.

Imagine, if you will, a father and mother in the crowd with their two children, a little boy and little girl. Led in what to say by powerful looking Jewish leaders and swept up in the mob mentality, they join the cry, nervously looking at their little ones: “His blood be on us and on our children!” It would have been a powerful oath to make, a powerful curse to risk, particularly for a people raised on the idea that God punishes sin for three generations or more.

Jesus, of course, is taken away and nailed to the cross. With the large number of witnesses, word of his death quickly spreads. The parents of these small children, perhaps a bit embarrassed at what they said, mostly are relieved the day’s strange events are over. Until …

Until Sunday. Until word begins to spread the tomb is empty. And everyone, everyone who doubted Jesus, everyone who had discounted him, feels a shiver of fear.

Imagine being those parents, looking at those precious children and considering what might be in store for this cursed family. Jesus demonstrated great power before; now it is clear he has power to overcome even his own death! What will the punishment be for those who sent him to the cross? Death for the son? Barrenness for the daughter?

Except for the fortunate few who encountered the resurrected Jesus, that fear must have continued for some time—for seven weeks, I figure, until the day of Pentecost. That’s the day the Holy Spirit falls on Jesus’ followers; that’s the day Peter preaches to the crowds who gather at the scene. I like to think the family with the two children are there as he preaches.

Oh, Peter lets them all have it. He makes it clear they were all complicit in Jesus’ death. But as they declare how they are cut to the heart with guilt, Peter begins to tell them about the promises. The resurrection is about hope. It is about a glorious future with God.

“For the promise ….” Hear what Peter says? The promise, not the curse. “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” Imagine the relief as the parents grip their children close to them.

Here’s a strange notion: It is good to have the blood of Christ on us and our children. By his blood, all curses are reversed. The sin at the root of all our stupid decisions, our foolish statements and our bad acts is washed away. And eternity is ours.


Mark 11:1-11

Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem looked and sounded like a celebration. It actually was one of the great misunderstandings in history, however, with none of the onlookers really understanding what Jesus was trying to communicate.

As Jesus passed through the gate into Jerusalem, all sorts of conflicting interests would have come together to watch the raucous scene. Some studies estimate Jerusalem’s normal population of 30,000 certainly doubled and possibly even tripled during this highest and holiest of Jewish holidays, the Passover. The formal city limits had to be temporarily extended, so travelers could say, “I was in Jerusalem for Passover this year.”

And in the midst of all of this, along came Jesus, riding on a donkey colt. It was a deliberate, overt act, one any good Jew would have recognized from prophecy. In particular, there were the words in Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The miracle man, the one who had already impressed so many with healings and feedings, was declaring himself king. The common people who gathered in the streets partially understood this sign, reacting by rolling out a palm-and-cloak carpet and shouting, “Hosanna!” Literally they were crying, “Save us,” although by this time “hosanna” was more a shout than words with real meaning.

Even his disciples failed to remember Jesus’ teachings, however, especially the one about his need to go to Jerusalem, die, and then rise on the third day. The disciples and the common people had their minds set on worldly salvation, failing to grasp how much more they could receive from God. They also missed the significance of the donkey, something a king would ride only if he came in peace. Their failure to understand what it truly means for Jesus to come in peace, readied to make the great sacrifice, would become evident as the week progressed.

And of course, there were others watching Jesus strike a match near what they considered a political powder keg.

There were the Sadducees, the Jewish faction in control of temple worship. They were experts at accommodation, fine with the system as it was, and they kept one nervous eye toward the Roman occupiers, hoping they weren’t picking up on the symbolism of Jesus’ ride.

There were the Pharisees, like Jesus reformers, but reformers deeply annoyed by Jesus’ constant criticism of their highly refined legalism and jealous of his miracles and popularity.

There were the Zealots, revolutionaries carrying sharp blades beneath their cloaks, hoping Jesus’ rousing of the crowd would lead to Roman blood in the streets.

And there were the Roman politicians and soldiers, fully armed and on high alert because of the crowds, determined to keep this backwater province under control.

Palm Sunday marks Jesus’ willing entry into the valley of the shadow of death, a place where worldly factions fall on you with little warning, and where those who cheer you on may call for your death just a few days later. And he entered it for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

As Christ’s followers, we’re called to walk through this broken world in the same way. Philippians 2:5-8:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

“Let the same mind be in you,” in whatever we do. In politics, we are to be little kings of peace, remembering the Sermon on the Mount. And where there is a thin understanding of Jesus Christ and his role as Savior, it may require deep sacrifices on our part to give that truth weight.

When we consider Jesus on the cross, our following his example almost seems like a losing proposition. It would be, except for what we celebrate next Sunday.

But that’s a story for next week. This week, remember the boldness, and the all-important death that cleanses us.

Even Demons Know

Mark 1:21-39

I think I’m as rational and grounded as the next person. Despite being a person of faith, a believer in Jesus Christ’s work in this world, my default way of thinking is to trust what I can see and measure, and be skeptical about what I cannot validate.

That makes me a typical 21st century citizen of the developed world, a product of a place where science and reason are held in high esteem. That sense of being “modern,” however, also can make it more difficult for me and for you to appreciate the truths in what can seem like a primitive story, a story including demon possession and exorcism.

The story itself is told in a straightforward manner—this is, after all, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had just gathered his disciples, and he headed to the synagogue in Capernaum, the town which would be his ministry’s home base for the next three years.

An Exorcism, Jesus-Style

First, a little regarding Jesus teaching with “authority,” as this becomes important to us later. The declaration of the worshipers about Jesus was not a slap at the scribes, whose job it was to look to the law and provide guidance. When the worshipers said Jesus taught as “one having authority,” they meant he spoke as God would speak, with the voice of a prophet, declaring God’s will directly.

Apparently, that holy authority bothered a demon occupying some part of one worshiper’s soul. I wonder if the man had ever done anything to indicate his problem before; he was allowed in the synagogue, rather than having been driven away from society, as possessed people often were. The resident demon declared loudly who Jesus is, and its fear of Jesus also was evident. Jesus silenced it and exorcised it, presumably freeing this man from some terrible burdens in the process.

To grasp the significance of the demon in this and other exorcism stories, we do have to believe there are evil powers at work but not directly observable in this world. As Christians, there’s really not much reason to reject such an idea. Think what we have accepted already.

Spirits Everywhere

We believe there is a personal spiritual force called God who made all things and stands outside all creation. We believe God’s Spirit fully occupies human flesh as Jesus Christ, and we believe that same Spirit occupies us when we accept Christ as Savior.

Few of us struggle with the idea of angels occupying a heavenly realm. So, It really shouldn’t be a stretch to imagine their evil variant, influencing us in a very personal way. As we hear in Revelation 12:7-9:

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

In recent years, I’ve found it easier and easier to accept that those evil beings among us take control of people. While working in prison ministry, I’ve had inmates tell me of their own personal experiences of losing control.

Certainly, these people did certain things to open the door to evil spiritual influences—drug abuse in particular seems to increase the risk of possession. But there is an element to their stories that goes beyond the simple rewiring of their brains through drugs or pornography. Something wicked was present. (By the time they told me these stories, they had been freed by Christ.)

Complete Victory

Here’s the good news: Christians who cling to their beliefs and guard themselves spiritually have nothing to fear. Our story today shows us demons tremble at the very idea of Jesus Christ. And they were trembling even before Christ had gone to the cross, defeated death and sin, and demonstrated his victory in the Resurrection.

If you’ll back up a few verses in Mark, you can see why demons feared Christ from the start of his ministry. Satan already had made one run at Jesus in the wilderness, testing him, vetting his identity, and badly losing a battle of wits. The entire spirit world must have taken note.

Why can I say we have nothing to fear? When we stay close to Christ, Christ’s Spirit remains in us, and those wicked forces see Christ in us. Evil may damage our bodies, but our souls are never in danger.

All this makes me wonder why people would dabble in New Age spiritualism or witchcraft. Have they not figured out they’re siding with the losing team? After the victory on the cross, the spiritual battle between good and evil is for all practical purposes over. If this were a basketball game, there would be a minute left in the fourth quarter, with Good up by 40 points over Evil.

Ephphatha—Open Up!

Mark 7:31-37 (NRSV)
Mark 7:31-37 (The Message)

You’re most likely reading this on the Internet in some fashion, through Facebook, e-mail or directly from the blog. If you’re like me, this is not always the most conducive environment for slowing down and spending time with God.

A computer or smart phone can buzz with activity. Other windows, apps or browser tabs may be open, streaming music or television. Little pop-ups may be appearing and disappearing, telling you “important e-mail” or alerting you to an incoming instant message. These glowing screens are like mirrors on the modern life, a swirling reflection of information overload.

Try something before you read any further. What you’ll experience is really important as we look at today’s text. Find a way to sit in silence, even if just briefly—say, five minutes. It helps to take some deep breaths.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

My premise today is a simple one. We are like the deaf man in our story in Mark. We’re just deaf for a different reason. He had a physical problem. We have an environmental problem that causes spiritual deafness.

Something had stopped up his ears. Perhaps it was disease. Perhaps it was a head injury. He began to speak as soon as he was healed, so he apparently remembered sound and speech. But at some point in his life, the sound had no longer come in and intelligible words had stopped coming out.

The cure was not a simple one, not even for Jesus the miracle worker. This was no time for spectacle, for show. Jesus pulled the man aside to a private place. (It strikes me that the deaf man must have had little understanding of what was going on; he had to trust Jesus.) Imagine what it would feel like to have Jesus stick his fingers in your ears. Imagine what it would be like to have him take his spit and put it on your tongue.

Imagine what it would be like to have Jesus pray for you in the common Aramaic his very common people spoke, a prayer so deep that it comes out in a groaning command: “Ephphatha.” Open up!

When it comes to hearing Jesus, to really hearing what God has to say to us, we’re stopped up, too. The world is in our ears. We’re clogged with work, sport and school schedules, with plans, with worries, with diversions like television, Internet and video games. We’re so stopped up that we’re in danger of remaining deaf to God’s continuing call on our lives until the day we die.

This deafness also makes us spiritually mute. How can we declare what we have not recently heard?

On the day the deaf-mute man was healed, the people who witnessed the transformation remembered what the prophet Isaiah had said about the time to come, the time when all things would be set right, the time when God would return to his people and establish the kingdom that would save the world. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (Isaiah 35:5-6)

And no one, not even Jesus, could keep them from proclaiming the signs they were seeing. (Was the deaf-mute man their keynote speaker as they ran about?) Their excitement was too great; they could not restrain themselves.

May we go to private places with Jesus long enough that our ears be unstopped. May we hear his message well. And may we declare the message of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior with great excitement.