Why are you afraid? Lectionary Reflections on Proper 7, year B

This week’s readings.

Two familiar stories this week: David and Goliath and Jesus calming the storm. In spite of their familiarity, strange things lurk in them. In the story from Samuel, it is Goliath himself who is strange (Samuel Giere, on workingpreacher.org, links Goliath to those other strange beings, the Nephilim, mentioned in Genesis 6 and elsewhere in the Biblical tradition). His height and power frighten the Israelites but David saves the day.

The gospel story picks up where last week’s reading ended. After Jesus spends the day teaching the crowd (the series of parables recorded in Mark 3), Jesus tells his disciples that they will cross the lake. As they do so, a sudden storm comes up, threatening the boat, while Jesus sleeps peacefully. The disciples waken Jesus, he calms the storm, and they continue to the other side.

Mark’s telling of this story draws parallels to other stories in the gospel. He writes that Jesus “rebuked” the storm, suggestive language that calls to mind Jesus’ exorcisms. At several points in Mark, the disciples are said to be full of fear, and there remains a sense of fear, or at least awe, at the very end, when they ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

We may occasionally fear the sorts of things mentioned in these stories–an encounter with a much more powerful adversary, or an experience with a hurricane, tornado, or blizzard that makes us fear for our lives. But we also live with other fears, and sometimes they are much more profound, and more debilitating than the fear we experience from a storm. In the latter case, adrenaline rushes help to see us through.

But what about those other great fears–the fear of economic insecurity, unemployment, loneliness? David announced that his victory over Goliath would prove God’s power, and so it did. But who will announce to the world, or to us, that our faith in God can conquer our fears? Jesus said, “Peace, be still” as he calmed the storm. Those ought to be words of comfort to us as well, when our minds and hearts race as we fear for our lives, livelihoods, and futures.

The reign of God is like a shrub: A sermon for Proper 6, Year B

June 17, 2012

Perception is reality. What you see is what you get. We’re used to it by now. There was a news story this week that another reality TV show is staged. We expect it from politicians and celebrities, from Hollywood. In the reading from II Corinthians Paul writes, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” But we see, I’ve got to see it to believe it. There’s even something of the contradiction in today’s reading from I Samuel. Conrad Bauman pointed it out to me this morning. When Jesse’s first son is presented to Samuel, Yahweh tells Samuel, “humans look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then when David comes before Samuel, we are told, “He was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” Continue reading

An Empty Tomb, Fearful Women: The Resurrection: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, Year B

April 7, 2012

A few days ago, I was walking on Capitol Square. It was a beautiful day, warm, sunny, the crabapples almost in bloom. I looked up and across the square and saw in front of me two familiar buildings—the State Capitol and next to it, the steeple of Grace Church. As I looked, I was reminded of the history of those two buildings, of their long presence next to each other, of the visions of their builders to create and shape a vision of a certain kind of society and polity. I thought, too, of their intertwined history, the men who in the nineteenth century wielded power in both places—Fairchilds, Vilases, et al. From a distance, both church and capitol look solid, secure, built for the ages. Continue reading

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”: Lectionary Reflections for the First Sunday in Lent, Year B

This week’s gospel reading is remarkably brief. It presents challenges to the preacher, because we have heard much of it in other contexts already in this liturgical year (vss 9-11 was included in the gospel for The Baptism of our Lord and vss 14-15 were included in the reading for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany). The key verses left out of those other readings were 12 and 13, Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Compared to the accounts of the temptation in Matthew and Luke (there is no parallel in John), Mark’s version is astonishingly brief and puzzling.

“And immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” The word translated here as “drove” is used elsewhere in Mark to describe Jesus’ casting out demons or Satan. Mark also uses it when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple. It’s an active verb, associated with violence and to use it here raises all sorts of questions. What is the gospel writer’s intent? To show that Jesus is utterly subject to the whim of the Spirit? Is Jesus a victim of the Spirit? Should we even capitalize the word “Spirit” assuming it refers to the Holy Spirit? And perhaps most importantly, what is the significance of the sequence: baptism, temptation, and beginning of public ministry?

These two verses (12-13) are full of allusion to a world we don’t inhabit, a world in which evil personified as Satan besets us, wild beasts surround us, and angels tend to our needs. But even if the symbolism is alien, the reality to which those symbols point is the same reality in which we live. We are tempted and struggle with sin and we do find solace in spiritual friendship and support. The terrors of the wilderness may be our despair and fear, our struggle with addictions, unemployment, even loss of faith. Jesus heard those amazing words, “You are my Son, my Beloved.” Those words must have sustained him throughout his trials in the desert, just as the words pronounced at our baptisms, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” should sustain us in our own wilderness sojourns.




Moved with pity: Lectionary reflections for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

This week’s readings.

The stories of lepers in the gospels always bring to my mind images from the 1959 movie Ben-Hur. If memory serves me correctly, there was a time, when Ben Hur played every year on network TV. For those of you who don’t know it, it was one of those movies Hollywood did so well in the 50s. Lavish productions, casts of thousands, lots of drama, and occasional camp. Ben-Hur is most famous for the chariot race that served as its climax, but what has stuck in my mind all of these years are scenes set in leper colonies. The movie showed in graphic detail everything Hollywood thought about the disease—people living in horrible circumstances, segregated from society, ravaged by the disease, having lost limbs to it.

Hollywood got it wrong. What the movie makers were depicting was Hansen’s disease and it was a horrible disease, made more horrible by society’s treatment of lepers. But when leprosy is mentioned in the bible, it’s not Hansen’s disease that’s being described. What the Bible refers to is a whole range of skin diseases, and the restrictions about it are not primarily intended to prevent the leper’s infection of other people, but rather to preserve the purity of the community. To make this point clear, in the chapters of Leviticus that detail what leprosy is and how it is to be handled, there is one very interesting instruction. If you have white blotches on your body, the priest is to confirm that you have leprosy, but if the skin disease is such that you are entirely covered with white, from head to toe, then, you are free of contamination. Moreover, it wasn’t just human beings that could have leprosy—cloth, or even houses could be certified by the priests as contaminated with leprosy.

So the leper who came to Jesus for healing in this week’s gospel was suffering from one of these skin diseases. What mattered more than the malady itself was the elaborate code of instructions that detailed the leper’s complete exclusion from the community. People certified as lepers by the priest were completely ostracized from society. They were to tear their clothes, keep their hair unkempt, shout “Unclean, unclean” whenever they encountered other people, and live outside the community.

Most important of all, is that biblical leprosy was something for the priests, not the doctors, to deal with. It had to do with the ritual life of the community and as such, the priest’s certification of leprosy or of freedom from leprosy impacted whether or not an individual could live in community or participate in the community’s ritual and religious life. One way to think about a leper in biblical culture was to think of him as “a dead man walking.”

Jesus has spent some time in Capernaum, healing the sick, and has told his disciples that he intends to take his show on the road, to go about the villages of Galilee, preaching the good news. But as he goes this leper gets in his way.  The leper doesn’t simply ask Jesus to heal him. Rather he says, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” That’s odd enough—I’m sure we all would be thinking, why would Jesus not choose to help this man?

What’s even odder is Mark’s next comment. Our translation reads, “moved with pity” but in fact the Greek reads implies that Jesus’ guts were turned over. And there’s another possibility—some Greek manuscripts read “moved with anger.” So this is not about compassion or feeling sorry—Jesus is deeply affected by this encounter. There are two ways of reading Jesus’ response. Either way, he is overwhelmed with emotion. One option is to interpret his response to the leper as compassion or pity at his plight, being forced to live alone, isolated from human contact and from access to the divine, forced to scratch out a living by begging and humiliation.

The other option is to read Jesus’ response to the leper as anger at the leper. We have been emphasizing the urgency of Mark’s gospel. Just before this encounter, Jesus has told his disciples that part of his task was to preach in all of the towns—the encounter with the leper slows him down, but also potentially prevents that mission trip. By touching the leper, Jesus has himself been made unclean, and should probably remove himself from society as well.

He responds to the leper with a demonstration of his power and authority, by declaring that he is clean. And he does it in dramatic fashion, by touching him. By declaring him clean, Jesus is usurping the authority of the priests who had that power, and by touching him, Jesus was challenging the rules of clean and unclean that were the focus of the restrictions against leprosy, and the focus of so much attention by his contemporary Jewish compatriots.

Jesus tells the man to go to the priests, to get certified that he’s clean, but the man doesn’t. He also doesn’t heed the other instruction Jesus gives him—to say nothing to any body. Now what’s odd about this is precisely the certification—in order to be reintegrated into the community, in order rejoin his family and friends, in order for him to have a role in the ritual life of Judaism, this man would have to receive the certification. The priests labeled him a leper; now it is up to them to label him clean.

The story ends on the oddest note of all. Because the cleansed leper did not obey Jesus’ request that he remain silent—how could he have? Jesus’ reputation spread far and wide and he was no longer able to go about openly. He couldn’t enter the towns of Galilee where he wanted to preach and heal. So he was stuck out in the countryside.

As I’ve been thinking about this story, I keep coming back to those things in it that perplex me. One is Jesus’ response to the leper’s request. Was he angry? If so, why? Was he moved with pity? One of the things that Christians have tended to do over the centuries is to turn Jesus into a savior that responds to our requests and needs with joy and sympathy. That tendency is present even in the gospels where often the very emotional language that Mark uses to describe Jesus is toned down in Matthew, Luke, and John. We have a hard time imagining a Jesus who might get angry when confronted by a leper, or even, might be so moved by his plight that his stomach turned.

Jesus was on the road, doing important business when this leper confronted him, and he had to stop for him. It was an encounter that changed both of them. The leper was healed, but Jesus had to change his plans. He had to call off that mission trip. He could no longer enter the towns he had planned to visit. In a way, he and the leper changed places. The healed leper could now go wherever he wanted, he could proclaim the good news, but Jesus had to let people come to him.

Lots to think about this week.

Welcoming, Healing, and Discipleship

Today, we decided to push nametags for everyone, so I wanted to do something in the sermon that would connect with that. Today’s gospel wasn’t an obvious fit, and in any case, it’s one of those passages that doesn’t preach itself. I finally figured out how to do it, and some of my sermon is below.

But I began in the aisle which isn’t my practice. I began with an allusion to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about welcoming the stranger. At the early service, I asked everyone’s name, and then asked them to talk about the gospel with me. At 10:00, I had people turn to their neighbors. Here’s what I meant to say:

Continue reading

Advent 1, Year B: Let’s celebrate the Gospel of Mark!

This Sunday’s Lectionary readings

November 27 is the First Sunday in Advent and the first Sunday in the new liturgical year. That means we are reading from the Gospel of Mark for the next year (except for lengthy digressions into John).

I love Mark. It was probably the earliest Gospel to be written, so in a sense, Mark invents the genre of Gospel. It’s a challenging and puzzling gospel and not just for 21st century readers. We can tell that Matthew, who usually follows Mark quite closely alters some of Mark’s most difficult passages and seems to misunderstand or deliberately reinterpret him at some points.

Mark is challenging for the 21st century reader familiar with the other gospels because we want to fill out his story with details from the others. But we should avoid that temptation. Mark lacks an infancy narrative and concludes with the empty tomb (the earliest and best manuscripts all end at 16:8). Those two facts in themselves challenge our understanding of Jesus, invite us to explore what Mark is getting at. Even more strange is the Jesus who emerges from this gospel. That is something I will have a great deal to say about in the coming year.

Mark is strange, other. To preach the Gospel of Mark faithfully means confronting and being confronted by that otherness. We have to ask what is the good news for God’s people today conveyed by this text from a radically different context, written for a radically different audience. Because of its otherness, Mark resists attempts to domesticate it or make it more accessible.

Before embarking on our year-long reading of Mark, it might be useful to read the whole gospel in its entirety. Here’s a link to chapter 1 (with links to the other chapters).