This world – the earth, the sky, the rivers and seas – is filled with the majestic mystery of divine presence. We know that presence in sunsets, walks in the woods, butterflies, and new born babies. But we also experience that presence inwardly — sometimes it is that still, small voice that carries with it an insistence that we encounter in the name of God. Perhaps. To hear that insistence as a calling is to have a mountain-top experience that drives us back down into the valley. We’d like to think that such experiences purify us and immunize us from deception and untruth, that we have become a person privileged by God. The truth is that such experience will likely give us a new direction and a new purpose for our lives. An insistent calling is an invitation to change within — to seek first the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice and then to apply oneself to the directional pull of that Commonwealth. So we begin to look in new directions and see the face of God on new people. Previously we would have seen God acting with power for the powerful; now we see God in the weak force that binds people together in love, peace, and justice. That seeing invites new behaviors which brings us into community with other seekers and other journeyers. Together we commend ourselves to God’s insistence and commit ourselves to compassion, justice, wholeness, integrity, and solidarity with the least, last, lost, and left out.
In the years during and after Jesus’ life people expressed amazement by telling great stories about amazing people. Stories of miraculous healings and people being raised from the dead were the currency of such stories. Jesus was the focus of many of these stories of amazement. In our day and age medical miracles are almost a dime a dozen. EMTs and emergency room staff routinely bring people back to life with electronic defibrillators; doctors administer drugs and surgery to cure and/or retard life threatening diseases. I personally have watched a surgeon remove a piece of detached cartilage from my knee, felt the blood course through the veins of my arm after hand surgery, and have had cancer arrested in both bladder and prostate. Amazing!
But I don’t think Jesus wants you to be amazed by such stories as we read today. There is something more amazing about Jesus than healings and raisings the dead. He lived a life that was not compromised by striving after social status, money, recognition, or power. He had a profound sense of an intimate connection to God that was made manifest in peace, love, justice, wholeness. I think that is the key. Jesus wants you to simply live your life trusting in God.
Jesus had a deep God-centered passion for the plight of the poor, the marginalized, the distressed, and the suffering. That passion was the focus of the two stories in today’s Gospel lesson.
A woman who has suffered for 12 years elbows her way through the crowd to get close to Jesus. She is afraid to come to him face-to-face, ashamed because of her illness. So she brings herself to reach out and touch the bottom hem of his cloak — hoping against hope that this will bring her healing.
Sensing her presence, Jesus stops and looks into the crowd… She had touched his cloak; he was touched by her need and her faith.
When Jesus finally arrives at the house of Jairus, everyone there is in a frenzy, everyone that is except Jesus. Jesus is touched by the plight of this family and the conditions the little girl. He reaches out and takes her by the hand. “Talitha com.” “Stand up!”
“Talitha cum” is not only addressed to the ‘little girl.’ It is an invitation to all of us — young and old, male or female, rich or poor, black or brown or white, Arab and Palestinian and Jew, … — to rise up and take our place in the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice. It is an encouragement to follow in the Way lived and taught by Jesus. It is a clarion call not to be taken in by the boisterous and pretentious posturings of the principalities or powers (whether political, social, cultural, or religious). It is an insistence that begs a response.
The sick woman who literally had the life force draining out of her for 12 years and and the family of Jairus which was facing the agonizing death of a child describe the kinds of life-denying situations you and I face in our daily journeys — cancer or other life threatening diseases… the hectic pace of life that has robbed us of joy… relationships that have frayed or broken… dreams that have fallen by the wayside… hopes that have been smashed…
Those of us who have reached out to touch Jesus and or have been touched by him, have a responsibility to allow others close enough so that they could touch us and then we might reach out and touch them — those working two, three, or more jobs and still not earning enough to make ends meet… those whose learning disabilities or social awkwardness makes them the butt of jokes, ostracism, or bullying… those whose race, religion, ethnicity, sex, age, or sexual orientation makes them the objects of fear, hatred, or prejudice…
When we remain at the level of amazement at miracles, we easily curtail our capacity to respond with acts of compassion and mercy.
The sacredness of these two stories lies in what they celebrate — namely the human passion for abundant life… life beyond the confines of illness and decline, life filled with hopes and dreams realized, life in touch with the divine mystery…
The Good News is that such life is possible when you touch (or are touched) by Jesus on the one hand and the poor, distressed, and suffering on the other.
And, when we are living in this manner — touching Jesus with one hand and those in need with the other, then maybe we will hear someone echo the words of today’s epistle lesson:
“Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’s wiping every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.”
When Jesus was dealing with Jairus, the troubled father, he said, “Fear not. Have faith.” “Don’t be troubled by current circumstances. Trust me.”
Maybe we just have to throw fear, trepidation, and dismay out the window replacing them with wonder, awe, confidence, joy, contentment, and a buoyant faith that puts hope in God and trust in friends and neighbors (near and far). Such faith confounds the principalities and powers that expect us to cower in their presence and it gives the world a foretaste of the Commonwealth of Peace and Justice.
Job 12:7 But ask the animals — they will teach you — and the birds in the air — they will tell you. (CEB)
Recently, I spent an afternoon in the St. John’s Pottery studio of master potter Richard Bresnahan. Richard has a deep spiritual connection with the earth; that connection shows in all his pottery. He can tell the story of each piece of pottery – which annual firing of the Johanna wood-fired kiln it was in, which chamber of the kiln, the various natural glazes used, how the flames swept over the piece, and how the glazes interacted with each other and the fire.
The latest firing produced, among hundreds (thousands??) of pieces, a series of beautiful bowls. One in particular echoed the sentiment of Job 12:7 – listen to the birds of the air and they will tell you marvelous things about the harmony of the creation and its creatures.
On the bottom underneath side of the bowl (the only part of the bowl that was not glazed), the first bird emerged from the center-point of the earth. That bird was the beginning of a long line of birds that flew with the sweep and flow of the glaze, spiraling upward on the bowl’s outside. As they flew upward, the birds became larger, until they went over the rim and started their descent. As the birds spiraled downward on the inside of the bowl, they grew smaller until the last tiny bird disappeared back into the center of the bowl.
How easy it is to forget that, as human being, we are a natural part of the created order. While we may have a crucial role to play as a self-aware, discerning species, we have a special responsibility to the creation because of our unique capacity to over-use, rape, and pillage the creation. Without restraint we can compromise the planet’s health and destroy our capacity to survive on this “blue marble” called Earth.
Listen to what the birds tell us: We are grounded in the creation – we are stardust, wonderfully made. We can soar and fly high and we will ultimately return the material of our bodies to the earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The birds fly in harmony with nature, in a natural flow . We, on the other hand, seem to want nature to fly with us – a most unnatural flow. We want to clear-cut the Amazonian forest. We pour all kinds of industrial wastes into our lakes and streams; then we are surprised when our children suffer lead poisoning. We burn coal and oil as if the reserves will produce forever.
My friends, the birds remind us that “forever” is on the near horizon. The universe does not give us a free lunch – every resource available to us has its limitations… every promise given extracts a portion of a limited supply… every denial moves us closer to our return to inter-galactic dust.
To whom was Yeshua speaking — his generation or ours?
31 “To what will I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked. “What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace calling out to each other, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t cry.’ 33 John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved to be right by all her descendants.” (CEB)
Was Yeshua looking at his generation? Or ours? Adults acting like children… name-calling focused against individuals who have a different perspective, or a different nationality, or a different skin color, or a different gender, or a different sexual identity, or a different religion. And all that backed up by a distorted sense of reality and/or a mistaking of wishful thinking for fact.
Too many in positions of political power and responsibility are catering to the lowest denominator, to base fears, to the wishes of the richest in order to subjugate the poorest. Where is the leadership? Where is public civility? Where is the informed Christian citizenship – that is those who hear and act upon Yeshua’s clarion call for faith that works toward justice which actualizes salvation (that is, the well-being of all in society)?
Luke presents two ways to approach God – John’s asceticism leading to repentance or the Human One’s embracing abundant life as a foretaste of distributed justice. Both approaches are substantiated by an wisdom available to the inner child in all — but both have been rejected. Unless we embark on an inner journey, accompanied by wisdom, we will remain childish and churlish and will miss the great banquet feast.
A sermon preached at St. Charles (MO) Presbyterian Church on 31 January 2016.
Prayer: Stir our hearts and minds, O Lord, so that we might become an extension of Your Word. Amen.
Today’s sermon – “The Divine Recycling Project” – is an early alert that Lent is coming and we need to get ready for this Season of Preparation. Mark 16:1-8 Listen for what the Spirit has to say to the church and its people!
The abrupt ending of Mark’s Gospel leaves us wanting for more. “Overcome with terror and dread, [the women] fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” That’s it. It’s a wrap! Done. The End! What a strange way to end a Gospel account. So strange, in fact, two ancient authors appended alternate outcomes in the margins – one of them (labeled “The Shorter Ended of Mark”) is just just two sentences; the other, (“The Longer Ending…”) is12 verses in three paragraphs. The Shorter Ending reads as follows:
“They promptly reported all of the young man’s instructions to those who were with Peter. Afterward, through the work of his disciples, Jesus sent out, from the east to the west, the sacred and undying message of eternal salvation. Amen.”
Don’t you feel better now? You breathe a sigh of relief. It is the theological equivalent of “And they lived happily ever after.” But that is not the way that Mark ended his Gospel account.
I learned a new word as I was examining this abrupt ending for Mark’s Gospel – APOSIOPESIS. (This is not a word the you need to remember – it won’t likely come up in conversation at a wine and cheese party or in your 5th grader’s spelling homework.) Mark’s Gospel ends with an Aposiopesis – a literary device… the story is deliberately broken off and left unfinished, the ending to be supplied by the imagination of the reader
Mark left A Clue to help prime the pump of our imaginations: Chapter 1, verse 1: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.”
It is not that Mark 1:1 is the “beginning” of the story Mark is going to tell; instead, Mark’s account of the good news about Jesus Christ is just the “beginning” of the story in which each of us is a chapter. Mark only began the story; he didn’t intend to finish it.
We want the story to end with the women running breathlessly to the other disciples and shout victoriously, “He is Risen. He is Risen indeed!” But, NO! They leave caught up in the very normal human emotion of fear and, so, they tell no one.
I can be like Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the others – who, because the story didn’t end in keeping with their hopes and dreams, were so caught up in frustration or depression that they couldn’t even motivate themselves to go to the tomb. OrI can be like the women – confronted such with a new and different reality which I can’t seem to wrap my head and heart around and thus skulk off in fear. Or I might even be like the young man that Mark introduces into his story, first at the time of Jesus’ arrest and now at the tomb. He shows up in the Garden of Gethsemane wrapped in a burial shroud which falls to the ground as he flees nakedly. Amazingly, he then shows up at the tomb wearing a white robe.
This young man is a literary device introduced by Mark to get his readers to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Christian life. I find myself regularly showing up where death threatens life… where hopes and dreams are cut short… where good and evil are held in tension in the midst of life… or where, to follow Jesus’ teachings, the poor are marginalized, disempowered, robbed of the abundant life and the justice that is rightfully theirs. Those circumstances strip me naked and send me away.
Actually, it is not so much that I show up to them as it is that they show up to me – every time I open go online, or read a newspaper, or watch TV, or go to the mall, or drive through town, or even when I come to church.When I face up to my fears, admit that I want to run away… admit that I am running away… when I admit my nakedness before God, then healing can begin, then salvation begins (healing is the root of the concept of salvation).
Once this Lenten healing (this divine recycling project) begins, I might just appear (metaphorically) in a white robe before those who are looking for something new and meaningful, but who are afraid… helping them find their way back to their own Galilee where Jesus will meet them.
Contemporary theologian Catherine Keller introduced me to the concept of a divine recycling project – or maybe the term ought to be re-purposing. Lent is a time to review our lives – our motivations, our commitments, and our actions. This review can help us identify where God is luring us toward more – more spiritual depth; more concerted action on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed; more concern for the stewardship of the earth. God might just be inviting me (and, perhaps, also inviting you) to recycle and/or re-purpose our lives.
The women went to the tomb, expecting to pay their final respect for Jesus. But their expectations were confounded. Instead of an old familiar ending they found a new beginning. That reversal of expectations terrified them at their core. The women went to the tomb and we go with them – straight into the den of death… and, in so doing we learn something about ourselves… something about Jesus… something about the mystery of life…
The season of Lent takes us to the tomb, which creates an anxiety within me! I am not sure that I want to go toward those scary places, those tender places within where I might have to encounter death and dying. The place where I may have to deal with my own mortality (or that of others) is not a place that I visit easily. I don’t want to hear about the death of an abused child; I don’t want to read about a soldier who will not be returning home; I don’t want to face a parent who is being eaten away with cancer.
I’d rather come to church and hear a “feel good” sermon, sing a few familiar gospel hymns, say a few hopeful prayers… but there is a part of me that knows that God is more likely to touch me where I hurt – where I hurt and/or where I hurt for and with others. For me, that is the hard part about getting ready for Lent – being ready to face my own anguish and the anguish of the world around me… And yet, that is where God seems to take up residence. And that is precisely where the Divine Recycling Project begins. Lenten preparation begins with the recognition that I must do something in the face of the troubles of the world – being present with somebody with their tears, acknowledging my own tears. …
My struggle is all about getting ready to face that inner part of me that isn’t as pretty as the face I usually turn toward the world and people around me. My preparation for the preparatory season of Lent consists mostly of praying, “God, can’t you make it easier. I’d rather not face the anxieties, the tears, the frustrations, the despairs of the world around me. And I certainly don’t want to face those crises within me. Can’t you do something about that and ease up a bit.” In my prayers I hear echoes of the Psalmist crying out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
Like the women at the tomb, “overcome with fear and dread,” I’d rather flee and tell no one. But there is also inside of me, a divine nudge, an insistence, a calling that won’t let me go. In the midst of my fervent praying I sometimes pause to take a deep breath… and in that quiet moment I hear the echoes of a young man in a white robe, “He is not here. he is going ahead of you into Galilee”
not to some heavenly abode, not to the rarified atmosphere of a mountain-top experience… instead into the classroom where you study or office where you work into your home, onto your street into the broken relationship with some member of your family, into your participation in community activities an into those with whom you’d rather not be associated
The prospect of following Jesus back to my Galilee raises the basic question of the Lenten season: “Do I really want to take up my cross and follow him?” Can I live faithfully and wholesomely in a society of hierarchic structures which foster oppression, alienation, and brokenness? Am I willing to follow Jesus into his second career of re-ordering the reality of society so that kingdom priorities and values prevail… over against a world predominated by power and privilege and the malignant spirits which they generate? Does the prospect of cooperating with Jesus in creating a new world of compassion, peace, and justice create in me a passionate drive or a foreboding sense of insecurity and anxiety which shows itself as a paralyzing fear? Do I really trust the Gospel charge and “Fear not!”?
When we leave Sunday school and worship… when we leave the committee meeting or the pot luck luncheon… when Choir practice is over, the bulletin is printed, and the sermon is ready to be preached… then it depends on the willingness of each one of us – pastor, elder, member, visitor… our willingness to be changed, recycled, re-purposed – the kind of recycling and re-purposing that makes us over into the Way that Jesus lived and taught… the Way of God’s peace and justice.
The Lenten season confronts us with the empty tomb… the reality that Jesus is no longer physically with us… no longer able to snap his fingers and fix it for us. The empty tomb means that we must search for the risen Christ in the most unlikely of places – in ourselves, in others (particularly the least, the last, the lost, and the left out) and in our wounded and hurting world. Finding the risen Christ in these unlikely places is the core of the Grand Divine Recycling Project.
Lent is just around the corner. May each one of us get ourselves ready to be re-cycled and re-purposed during the coming Lenten season. Let’s get ready to get ready!
Prayer: Inviting God, instead of issuing great demands, you approach us as a lure, a nudge, a divine attraction. Interrupt our solemn preparations. Stir our hearts; call us out of our lethargy into the maelstrom of a hurting world. May your presence become truly experienced in the world through our faithful response. Amen.
1 Listen to me when I complain, God! Protect my life from the enemy’s terror! 2 Hide me from the secret plots of wicked people;hide me from the schemes of evildoers 3 who sharpen their tongues like swords. They aim their arrow—a cruel word— 4 from their hiding placesso as to shoot an innocent person.They shoot without warning and without fear. 5 They encourage themselves with evil words.They plan on laying traps in secret. “Who will be able to see them?” they ask. 6 “Let someone try to expose our crimes! We’ve devised a perfect plot! It’s deep within the human mind and heart.” 7 But God will shoot them with an arrow!Without warning, they will be wounded. 8 The Lord will make them trip over their own tongues;everyone who sees them will just shake their heads. 9 Then all people will honor God,will announce the act of God,will understand it was God’s work. 10 Let the righteous rejoice in the Lord;let them take refuge in him;let everyone whose heart is in the right place give praise!
How easy it seems to the good man or woman to ask God to preserve them from evil, from “the secret plots of the wicked.” Those perceived as evildoers become easy to describe — after all, “they” are after “me/us.” Their purposes are underhanded; they snipe at us from ambush, afraid to show themselves in the light of day. Of course, in truth, this is the issue that we need to deal with — internally, not externally. When we become fixated on the evil “out there” we are likely directing attention away from the dark side within. “The secret plots of the wicked” can be an apt description of the wicked, divisive, dual split within ourselves. To become ‘upright in heart’ necessitates finding wholeness and integration within As long as we keep focused on evil out there, we will have difficulty moving toward wholeness within. If we don’t move toward acknowledging and integrating our dark side (shadow), then salvation slips from our grasp.
“God will shoot them with an arrow!” is not about a strong physical interference that will stop the “evil” person in his/her tracks. Instead it refers to a weak inner insistence that may or may not be heard (that is the wound). Those hearing / feeling this nudge or invitation are challenged to work actualizing justice. You and I take refuge in the Lord as we act to materialize the well-being of all in society – that is, as we act with a humble spirit to develop and support compassionate justice in society.
Christianity, true to its roots in Judaism, wanted a Messiah… and found him in Jesus of Nazareth. Leaving its Jewish roots as it spread through the Greek world, Messiah became Christ, a subtle acknowledgment that Judaism did not recognize the Messiah when he came into their midst. As the progression moved on, Jesus became Christ became God. How unlike the recounting in the Gospels of Jesus’ baptism and wilderness experiences… and his continual resistance to having the Messiah title applied to him.
Jesus transformed the Messiah/Savior Hero archetype into the messianic — that is, into an inner dynamic that not only inhered in him, but is available to all (the “Son of man”). The Eastern Orthodox theological tradition has maintained the roots of this understanding in the concept of “divinization.’
Christianity, true to its roots in Judaism, continues to understand God as a strong person/force that is capable of intervening in and contravening historical processes. Jesus as Christ as God is seen as evidence of this — calming the storm, healing the sick, rising from the dead. How unlike the recounting in the Gospels of Jesus’ life and ministry that grew out of his baptism and wilderness experiences.
Jesus refuses to allow others to see him as the source of healing, he is merely the catalyst, the channel. The healing comes from within — from the integration of sickness and health, darkness and light, Self and God. Howes is correct in referring to the “God-process” (rather than the Being of God) to describe the Source of life, healing, wholeness). While God is more than just what I personally experience inwardly, inner experience is exactly where God (the Divine, Mystery, Spirit) is to be found. That message is clear in and through Jesus.
Christianity, in movement away from its Jewish roots, began to overlay accretions to the root stories and words of Jesus to ensure his answer to humankind — that is to answer our questions such as: How am I to be saved? (Who will save me?) How can I be healed? (Who will heal me?) How can my life have meaning? (Who will give my life meaning?) Unfortunately, many of the proposed answers to these questions have lead to a degradation of this life in favor of a heavenly next-life after physical death.
Jesus’ answer to God was an assuredness of the responsibility of choice in all these matters. Rather than concern for being rescued by an outside entity, Jesus pursued an interior wholeness (integration of competing inner forces) that is salvation (that is “the healing of purpose” as Jack Biersdorf so eloquently states it). Instead of waiting for an ideal next-life, Jesus plunges into this life, even “turning his face toward Jerusalem” and squarely facing the greatest resistance (internally and outwardly) to his campaign for a new understanding of God and the ‘religious’ life. Jesus was not a next-life preacher, he “sold his all” in the here and now, in the meantime.
Jesus emerged from baptismal waters and wilderness temptations with a profound insistence (sense of call) and a deep-seated sensitivity to the movement of the God-process within. This was not only his experience; he invited everyone with whom he came in contact to experience this for themselves — for us to experience it for ourselves — for me to experience it for myself.
The God-process is experienced within. The Kingdom (Commonwealth) is within, as well as having a social/political dimension. Healing may look to a Healing Symbol (such as Jesus) to help find the strength or determination, but the healing process must be initiated from within, for that is where it happens. Salvation (a fancy word for healing of the spirit or purpose), likewise, is within.
What I find remarkable is that the Gospel accounts, with all their intentionally mis-leading overlays and accretions, still contain a true picture of the original message of Jesus. It just took a Jungian analyst to strip away the layers and confront me with the “truth that will set you free.” I am delighted that I have a friend who is willing to journey together as we strip away the overlays and accretions to our faiths and lives in order that we may discover more of who we are and who we are continuing to become. I am distressed and frustrated that more friends and family are not as willing to take that journey.
To conclude a final class on the Parables (this one focused of a variety of perspectives on the Prodigal Son parable, my friend (Wayne) composed a parable which I edited. It follows:
There were two brothers of the covenant (cousins actually). They both wandered in the wilderness, wondering what they should do… how they should live their lives… how they would be faithful and obedient to their Father.
The older cousin confronted those around him with their disobedience to the law, asking them to repent and turn from their ways and be baptized. He was politically insubordinate and unyielding, speaking truth to power and, in the end his head was served up on a platter.
The younger of the two shared his life – loving and healing and inviting people to care for and about one another. He didn’t shrink before the religious or political authorities, but continued to favor the poor. He taught his followers and invited them to include all with compassion, rather than exclude and discriminate. He refrained from judging and that offended the leaders of the religious system which catered to political power. He was hung on a cross and resurrected in the lives of people like you and me.
When the family business is speaking truth to power and standing in solidarity with the poor, longevity is not expected. Personal and societal transformation is!
Let those who have ears to hear, listen carefully!