New Life After Loss (John 21:1-12)

This is a portion of the message that I gave on resurrection Sunday, April 5, 2015

We have been reflecting on the theme of transformation this year, because as the elders spent time praying for the coming year, we knew God was inviting into deeper transformations as a community.

A lot has been said, and there is plenty more to say about our theme, but today is the day that the church worldwide stops and remembers that the kind of transformation we are talking about – both spiritually and societally – has resurrection as a necessary part of the process.

With every loss and every death there is always the possibility of new life. Continue reading New Life After Loss (John 21:1-12)

The Maze Dull Truth (Mark 1:21-28)

Expectations and Maze Dull Rats

Robert Rosenthal was a psychologist who is famous for his experiment with rats in a maze. The experiment looked at “expectancy effects” and how our expectations have a direct effect on the outcome of what we are doing (link).

In 1963, Rosenthal took two groups of students to test how well they could get their rats through a maze. The students were to help guide their rats through the maze as fast as they could.

To one set of students he gave them, what he called, “Maze Dull” rats and to the other group he bestowed to wonderful “Maze Bright” rats.

Of course, in reality there were not differences at all between the rats, but the students didn’t know this.

Can you guess what happened? Continue reading The Maze Dull Truth (Mark 1:21-28)

On Being Exiled, Trains and Belonging

This is my sermon from this past Sunday:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:13–16)

The Snowpiercer

I saw a poignant illustration of what Ezekiel is talking about recently in the film Snowpiercer, which I might say is really all about the theme of exile. Front and center in the movie is this impulse of empire to preordain some to the front of the train and some to the back. Continue reading On Being Exiled, Trains and Belonging

On Not Locking Anyone Out – Matthew 25:1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

(Matthew 25:1–13 NRSV)

This is my sermon on Matthew 25. If you’d like to hear the audio go to Camas Friends Church.

The Gas Company*

There is a church about the same size as ours in southern Ohio.

In just about every way there are just like every normal church, they sing songs, listen to sermons written just for them, they pray for one another, and they enjoy eating food together.

But there was a little undercurrent within that community that has the potential to unravel the church.

See in this poor rural town where they all live Fracking has become a pretty big thing and the church was being touched on all sides by it. Because of being a poor community there wasn’t a lot of work to go around. When the gas companies came in to start the fracking and set up gas plants, there was a significant burst in jobs and a number of folks from the church were finally able to get work. This was a good thing. Children were eating better and were able to get clothes for school, bills were finally getting paid off, even the stewardship committee of the church was happy to see that giving was up a little. But there wasn’t the space to openly celebrate the way you might a wedding or a baby dedication.

Continue reading On Not Locking Anyone Out – Matthew 25:1-13

Learning to Say Farewell

Finally, my brothers and sisters, farewell in the Lord.

The letter to the Church in Philippi reflects Paul’s own uncertainty about his life and what I think is his own trying to prepare his community for his passing (cf.  1:6; 1:20–24; 1:27; 2:5–11; 2:12–13; 3:7–11; 3:12–16).

The letter itself is believed to have been written around 62 CE and Paul is believed to have been martyred under the reign of Emperor Nero shortly thereafter.

What is even more moving is a word Paul chooses to use throughout his letter: chairo. It is used 9 times in this letter.  It can be translated as rejoice. Here are a couple instances:

  • Phil. 2:17 But even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
  • Phil. 3:1  Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again to you is no trouble for me, and it is a safeguard for you.
  • Phil. 4:4   Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!

But you know how else it can be translated?

It can be translated: be well: be glad, God speed, or farewell. Continue reading Learning to Say Farewell

The Cockeyed Poem on the Plain (based on the Sermon on the Plain Lk. 6)

Here’s my own take, a remix if you will, of some of the things going on in the Gospel of Luke and Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20-49).

This is a new version of the poem [added august 9th, 7:45pm]

This poem is for all people,
but only those who act on it
are the ones who it is really for.

It matters little whether you believe it is true,
if you don’t live its truth.

To really see what is real,
You’ll need to shift your perspective.
Eveything should feel a little cockeyed.

Some things are more difficult to understand when you look at them head on.
Sometimes a short-circuit brings things into focus.

Things are not as they seem.
The winners are really losing,
the losers’ winnings are subtle.

Those with brokenhearts and broken bodies
know that everything will be mended,
it’s on the mend now.

To those whose bellies are hungry and who are crushed by lies
know that what was looks as though it is nowhere
is really now here.

What was to come at the end is taking place right now.
There is possibility in the impossible,
That’s how God works.

Don’t take things into you own hands,
that rarely turns out well.

Remember, we are waiting for bodies to put all this into action,
we are wiating for people to stop (just) believeing and to start living.

Who cares if you believe the truth if you don’t live the truth?
Pray for God’s imagination.
Pray for the paintbrushes of the kingdom.

And woe to all of you who keep working on the sly.
Woe to you who take what isn’t yours,
Who are the cause of those who cry.

Your day is looming,
your bell tolls too.

All of God’s creation is good,
unfortunately, not all of creation realizes this.

God’s way of thinking is no doubt cockeyed, harebrained and pungent,
God’s way of theology is more in line with poetry than with mathmatics or logic.

So don’t be surprised if you find yourself scratching your head,
in fact, if I were you, I’d expect it.

In the kingdom, inside is inside, out is out, and up and down follow accordingly.
it just seems like everything is flipped upside down,
but it’s the logic of the world is backwards.

And now we turn the page to the “most divine madness of all.”

Do good to the enemy?
Reverse worldly wisdom on this issue.

Do good to the bad guys?
This will likely make more enemies than friends,
but that’s okay, because I call you friend.

Don’t stop at just loving your friends,
It’s great to do that, but seriously who doesn’t like to keep things easy?

Those who threaten your way of life,
those whose own love has turned to the black soot of hatred and strife,

Love them as well.
Love them deeply.
Love them even if it you costs you everything.

This is going to be difficult to do,
but do it all the more.

It is your duty.

Then go beyond this, and do the impossible.

Demand to be treated as an equal,
demand them to look you in the eye,
and offer them forgiveness.

That’s the only way you’ll get forgiven.

Love without measure,
the only way to measure love is that it has no measure.

Gift is God’s economy,
so give what until it hurts.
and then hope and pray that
nobody sees you doing this deed.

Stop the hypocrisy,
nobodies likes a lying cheat,
nobody likes endless sarcasm,
and fear and condemnation are not a part of this kingdom.

Take care of the weeds in your garden,
before you start weeding your neighbors’.

And forget about living life for yourself
forget about continuing in your old habits,
this is going to take a new outlook and new disciplines.

Be careful who your teacher is,
you may just end up like them.

Be the kind of person who produces goodness through and through.
Be the kind of person who has an abundant heart and room for everyone.

Be an avacado tree, an apple tree, a lemon tree, just something that grows beautiful fruit,
and remember in order to do this you’ll need to consider your soil, and your access to water and sun.

Take into account what your surrounding is too.
Your fruit may dry up otherwise.

Remember you can cultivate the soil, but you can’t make it grow.
God’s  loves farming.

I don’t believe much in arguing over foundations,
if they crumble so does what’s built on top of it.
But since you’re going to be building,
you’re first need to build down.

Resist the urge to have more and to get bigger, deeper is best.
It is what will keep you standing in the storm.

Then we’ll know the difference between those who just hear and those act on these words.

We will see who has truly heard this poem.
They are the ones who lay down their paintbrushes and live into the new world coming.

Digging Up the Roof: The Kingdom Moment and the Paralytic in Mark 2:1-12

Jesus and the Paralytic

This is the sermon I gave this past Sunday on Mark’s story about Jesus and the paralytic.

“When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”” (Mark 2:1-12 NRSV).

The story of Jesus healing the paralytic is a rich narrative with many layers to it. I want to focus on how it describes established institutions, represented by the grumbling scribes, come under attack through Jesus’ actions that proclaim a new moment, a new time and new way of being the people of God. The unexpected intrusion of a paralyzed person being lowered through a roof that had been dug up is a perfect image for the great lengths God goes to, to get outsiders into our churches. Jesus challenged these institutions at the points where they became roadblocks and invited people into a new work of God.

“When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them” (Mark 2:1-2).

Jesus: Celebrity in Capernaum

Mark tells us that Jesus just arrived home in Capernaum [Ka-Per-Knee-Umm]. Capernaum was a village with some 1500 residents, who typically lived in small individual quarters that housed large families (Green DJG 1992, 39). These homes were only one story and had a flat roof, accessible by a staircase on the outside of the home. Because of the tight quarters, the roofs were used for work as well as sleep. They were thatched with rush, held together by mud, and wood beams or branches made the structural part of the roof (France 123). This is why, in our story, the protagonists literally had to “dig up” the roof.

Mark doesn’t tell us whether this is Jesus’ actual house or someone else’s, but in either case he has obviously become a local celebrity. The word that he was home got out, and people crammed into small quarters to hear Jesus “teach the word” to them (which probably means he was teaching what became known as “the Christian Message”). People were obviously interested in what was going on because even the front door was blocked.

There is something noteworthy about the particular word Mark uses for “crowd” (in verse 3). Originally, it meant something like a, “confused majority, or ordinary soldiers in a combat unit but who are not officers.” It also refers to non-combat people who follow the army and perform menial duties (Luke 2 and John — carry 2 miles). One commentator says, these were the “people of the land” who are differentiated from those in the ruling class. Rabbis taught that Jews should not share meals or travel with this group. Therefore it is unique to see both these groups represented at this gathering with Jesus.

It is in this setting that we see the birth pangs of Jesus’ new moment clash with the institutions and establishments of the old. Jesus was up to something new that these old wine skins couldn’t (it’s probably a good thing he didn’t call them that).

NT Wright says: “The main issue between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries was his claim that the “moment” had come, that their god was even now inaugurating his kingdom, and that this – this praxis, these stories, this person – was the mode and means of its inauguration” (NT Wright, 383).

In his interaction with the paralytic Jesus showed what this new moment looked like. The kind of kingdom he announced was one that was centered on hospitality and healing of the outsider.

“Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay”  (Mark 2:3-4).

This is a kingdom where the intrusion of the other, such as the paralytic, does not disrupt the work of God but rather gives new opportunities to proclaim it. The unexpected visitation quite literally shows that God works to dig up the institutions and obstacles that stand in the way of people being made whole. This episode shows us that to create space for a new thing, sometimes we need to start digging.

The Disruption of the Paralytic

Once the man is lowered down through the hole, Jesus confronts the injustice that this man faced. Being disabled, the “paralytic” would have most likely been in extreme poverty. For instance, there was no access to any kind of healthcare system and being paralyzed meant he was not able to work. So he probably was a beggar or dependent on the generosity of family and friends, who may or may not have had resources to help him.

There is some evidence too that to be a full member of the Jewish community one had to be physically whole (not blind, lame, a leper, etc). This is because, whether through sickness, sin or something else, he would have been thought of as ritually unclean. NT Wright points out, when it comes to Jesus’ healing the paralytic he offers him “the gift of shalom.” Not only was Jesus restoring his physical health but also giving him a “renewed membership in the people of YHWH.”

In fact, most of the people Jesus healed were a part of these “banned categories.” You will remember that Jesus healed people like Bartimaeus who was blind, many who were lame, lepers, a woman who bled profusely, a woman who was crippled, not to mention many others (Wright 192). He didn’t just give them the restoration of physical infirmities rather he “reconstituted those healed as members of the people of Israel’s god” (Ibid).

Given this background: I really wish I could have watched this scene unfold. We’re not told much about this man at all: what was his back-story? How did he ended up being paralyzed? Was he this way from birth? Did it really have something to do with sin?

And who were these four guys lowering him through the ceiling? Were they family members, members of the local synagogue in Capernaum, people from Jesus’ gathering who knew his story and went back to get him? Whoever they were, they must have been beautiful and creative people, carrying the dead weight of a paralyzed man down who-knows-how-many streets and when they get there they “dig up” a roof that stood between him & Jesus.

I can imagine the disappointment these men must have felt after arriving too late to get close enough to hear or see Jesus. The house was packed and it seemed like their effort was in vain. But the obstacles proved to give way to opportunity.

These four men carrying a paralyzed guy on a bed-mat do the absurd and clamber to the roof of someone’s house and dig a hole big enough to lower a person through it.

I love how totally unexpected and weird this scene is.

[ILL] Think about it, have you ever been sitting in someone’s living room, all crowded around a famous teacher, and then all of a sudden you hear pounding on the roof. The teacher, with a strange look in his eye, looks up and dusts his head off as if some debris just fell from the ceiling. The next thing you know, there are a bunch of guys peering down from above lowering a man through a hole in the roof! This was quite a seen!

The paralytic’s arrival is a very dramatic intrusion into this scene. And the intruder, who disrupts this lovely evening lecture, isn’t a popular celebrity, but an outsider who is crippled. As we see with how the Scribes act, unexpected and unwanted visitors can often be treated as an inconvenience rather than with hospitality and opportunity.

But Jesus did not miss a beat, it was no intrusion to him. He said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Almost as if to say, “Son, no worries about the roof to our house here, I forgive you.” Instead, the forgiveness he offered generated a serious controversy.

(Mark 2:5-12) “Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!””

Challenging The Old Ways (of the Debt)

The Scribes are actually right: only God can forgive sins. They knew the laws better than most, and what Jesus was doing really was blasphemous from their perspective. However, they refused to accept, or understand, that Jesus may have the God-given authority to forgive sins and cancel debts (Luke 4, The year of Jubilee). In fact, we might say that Mark 2:1-12 is ultimately about who has the authority to offer new interpretations and practices within an older tradition.

Through forgiveness and healing Jesus challenged the debt system, which held people outside the community. Ched Myers argues that Jesus introducing this language of the “debt code,” forgiving sins, challenged a system that had grown oppressive. He says, “The man’s lack of bodily wholeness would have been attributed to either his own sin, or, if a birth defect, inherited sin; he was thus denied full status in the body politic” (Myers 155). Jesus, as we see here, releases him from all debt and places him squarely back into the community.

This is where the rub is. If Jesus simply cured these people, refraining from forgiving debts and restoring their whole selves, there would have been little clash with those in power. But Jesus, as the healer-prophet, took it much further. By offering forgiveness and healing to those who wanted it, he redrew the boundaries. In effect, he said, “all those you have been keeping at arms length through your institutionalized religion are the ones who are truly the insiders, and you who have thought you were on the inside have been wrong all along. You have misinterpreted the tradition.”

NT Wright says Jesus’ challenge to the Scribes was to:

“give up the interpretation of your tradition [not the tradition] which has so gripped you, which is driving you towards the cliff-edge of ruin. Embrace instead a different interpretation of your tradition, one which, though it looks like the way of loss, is in fact the way to true victory” (Wright 383).

This is what makes Jesus unique in his ministry and met with so much hostility. The “debt code” effectively became a Jewish institution that drew heavy boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Jesus’ removed these boundaries and disrupted the flow of the hierarchical order these religious elites were trying to maintain.

He exposed the underlying commitments and worldview of the Scribes, and showed them that God’s kingdom cannot be contained within these boundaries.

This was a dramatic clash between the symbolic institutions and a new “event” God was bringing about. [An event is something that “has already happened but is still arriving” (Caputo 58).] In other words, the old powerful institution clashed with something still on the way, both young and fragile. Yet, Jesus showed that it is in the new and fragile that the kingdom is born.

No wonder this passage ends with the crowds, who though the “confused majority,” had a moment of clarity and said, “We have never seen anything like this!” Something new was truly underway. The crowd can’t help but see that this is a new moment taking place before them. This statement, their recognition that God was up to something new, is in stark contrast to the attitude the scribes display. One is worried about blasphemy, the codes behind forgiveness and healing, and protecting the institution. The other, our “confused majority” is open to the new possibilities of Jesus’ kingdom. The roof was coming down, and Jesus was ushering a new vision for the people of God.

God’s Event Is an Intrusion

This whole scene takes place because a few creative folks “dug” a big hole in somebody’s roof. Because of this, a paralyzed man was made whole, and the Scribes had their theological feathers ruffled. This intrusion of the unexpected “other” sets the stage for Jesus to challenge the institutions that have gotten out of hand and display the new thing God was doing among them. Sometimes it takes a little digging to make space for something new.

Where do we find ourselves in this story? Are we the paralytic looking for wholeness? Are we the friends who, with a little creative imagination, dig up a roof? Or are we the institutionalized Scribes locked into their ways? I imagine we, the church, are a little like all these folks.

The pressing question from this passage is: How do we act like the scribes? In what ways have we in the church become enslaved to such institutions and traditions? Are we ready to see the new “moment” take place here?

Unfortunately, as the community of God in our time, we sometimes act like the Scribes in our story. Today, the church can easily find itself on the wrong side of history, drawing the boundaries of who is in and who is out, as though we have the corner market on all things God. Holding people at arms’ length, usually out of fear and desire to protect our sacred institutions, betrays our lack of faith that God can work in ways we don’t understand. Those of us in the church can act as though we have the final answer on all of life. The Scribes had the answers and were closed-off to Jesus’ message, even the kingdom of God couldn’t challenge their ideas.

But this isn’t the role the church is to have. I think we’re to be the diggers in this story who dig up the roof to make an opening for an encounter with God.

Theologian John Caputo, asked in a recent book,

“How does Jesus’ distance from us illuminate what we must say and do in the importantly different situation in which we find ourselves today? The task of the church is to submit itself to this question, rather than using it like a club to punish others. The church, the archive of Jesus, in a very real sense is this question. It has no other duty and no other privilege than to bear this memory of Jesus and ask itself this question. The church is not the answer. The church is the question…” (Caputo 2007, 34).

The scribes in our passage represent those who already have the answers, those who base their faith and trust in God with easy, ready-made, prepackaged theological answers. Jesus “deconstructed” this way of being the people of God and challenged them to remain open to the new and unexpected moment of the Kingdom. We must always remain open to the fact that as the people of God, we are foremost to subject ourselves to whatever God’s work is in our world today.

Unfortunately, our churches can also become obstacles to people being made whole, churches can be a lot like the old roof in our story. The roof represents an obstacle, or impediment, to those on the outside wanting to get in. “Steeple-houses,” as George Fox called them, have quite the roofs! There will be no rappelling from these: you either come in the front door or you stay out! But as the followers of Jesus, we are to be creative in how we dig up these impeding rhetorical roofs.

As I reflected on this passage again and again it dawned on me that the friends, our diggers, of the paralytic seemed a lot like Quakers! Or at least a first century Jewish version of Quakers. Not only were Early Quakers a bunch of creative folks, who found ways to challenge the status quo and make Christ available to everyone, they actively removed the impediments that stood before people and God, so that all might find Christ and be made whole.

We all know George Fox’s constant challenge to Christendom: “Christ is here right now, he’s teaching the people on his own! Remove these impediments! Let them at Jesus!” (My paraphrase). I think the Quaker tradition is, at its best, a purveyor of shovels for dirt roofs. I think Quakers must have liked to dig a lot, because they constantly dug holes in the institutional walls of the church and state. Early Friends saw many things within Christendom that had grown closed off to the radical witness of love, hospitality and compassion of the Jesus we see in Mark 2. This is what got Quakers in so much trouble, just like Jesus. Digging holes made the church vulnerable to the unexpected, often unwelcomed, new moment of God’s kingdom. Through these holes they dug, many left on the outside of the church, woman, slaves, native americans, prisoners, rich and poor, were able to see the light of God’s kingdom shining through.

In Closing

May you Church be like the paralytic’s friends, and early Quakers, and start dig up roofs that keep out those who want to find God. May you find those institutions, and obstacles, whether inside these walls or out there in the world, that seek to keep people out and dig holes through them.

May you be like Jesus and accept the unwelcome strangers into your lives and find ways to be true healers. May you be open to the new moments of the kingdom that cannot be contained by walls, codes and institutions.

May you be like the paralytic, whose deep faith, not only opened him up to the great risk of seeking Jesus, but sought to be made whole through a lively encounter with Christ.

May you also be like the “confused majority” and be open to and recognize the kingdom announcement when as it happens. May you seek to be the question, rather than the answer, open to whatever God’s work is today.

May we all be like the Scribes who care deeply for their tradition, yet may we reject traditionalism, realizing that God brings the new through intrusion of the other.

And hopefully your city will say “We have never seen anything like this!”

Image from the National Gallery London.