Dangerous Dance

Mark 6:1-29 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
6 Jesus left and returned to his hometown with his disciples. 2 The next Sabbath he taught in the Jewish meeting place. Many of the people who heard him were amazed and asked, “How can he do all this? Where did he get such wisdom and the power to work these miracles? 3 Isn’t he the carpenter, the son of Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon his brothers? Don’t his sisters still live here in our town?” The people were very unhappy because of what he was doing.
4 But Jesus said, “Prophets are honored by everyone, except the people of their hometown and their relatives and their own family.” 5 Jesus could not work any miracles there, except to heal a few sick people by placing his hands on them. 6 He was surprised that the people did not have any faith.
Jesus taught in all the neighboring villages. 7 Then he called together his twelve apostles and sent them out two by two with power over evil spirits. 8 He told them, “You may take along a walking stick. But don’t carry food or a traveling bag or any money. 9 It’s all right to wear sandals, but don’t take along a change of clothes. 10 When you are welcomed into a home, stay there until you leave that town. 11 If any place won’t welcome you or listen to your message, leave and shake the dust from your feet as a warning to them.”
12 The apostles left and started telling everyone to turn to God. 13 They forced out many demons and healed a lot of sick people by putting olive oil on them.
14 Jesus became so well-known that Herod the ruler heard about him. Some people thought he was John the Baptist, who had come back to life with the power to work miracles. 15 Others thought he was Elijah or some other prophet who had lived long ago. 16 But when Herod heard about Jesus, he said, “This must be John! I had his head cut off, and now he has come back to life.”
17-18 Herod had earlier married Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. But John had told him, “It isn’t right for you to take your brother’s wife!” So, in order to please Herodias, Herod arrested John and put him in prison.
19 Herodias had a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she could not do it 20 because Herod was afraid of John and protected him. He knew that John was a good and holy man. Even though Herod was confused by what John said, he was glad to listen to him. And he often did.
21 Finally, Herodias got her chance when Herod gave a great birthday celebration for himself and invited his officials, his army officers, and the leaders of Galilee. 22 The daughter of Herodias came in and danced for Herod and his guests. She pleased them so much that Herod said, “Ask for anything, and it’s yours! 23 I swear that I will give you as much as half of my kingdom, if you want it.”
24 The girl left and asked her mother, “What do you think I should ask for?”
Her mother answered, “The head of John the Baptist!”
25 The girl hurried back and told Herod, “Right now on a platter I want the head of John the Baptist!”
26 The king was very sorry for what he had said. But he did not want to break the promise he had made in front of his guests. 27 At once he ordered a guard to cut off John’s head there in prison. 28 The guard put the head on a platter and took it to the girl. Then she gave it to her mother.
29 When John’s followers learned that he had been killed, they took his body and put it in a tomb.

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I have always loved to read. I can still name my favorite books from childhood—-Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and all the books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
One of my favorite authors these days is Frederich Buechner. Everyday I receive in my email an excerpt from one of his books. I like him so much because he has a delightful sense of humor and is not afraid to exaggerate or to use his imagination.
So, today, I’m going to share with you his piece about Herod Antipas and Salome. You’ve heard the Biblical version; here is Buechner’s version:
ONE OF THE LESS OFFENSIVE ACTS of Herod Antipas was to walk off with his brother’s wife, Herodias—at least there may have been something like love in it—but it was against the law, and since John the Baptist was a stickler for legalities, he gave Herod a hard time over it. Needless to say, this didn’t endear him to Herodias, who urged her husband to make short work of him. Herod said he’d be only too pleased to oblige her, but unfortunately John was a strong man with a strong following, and it might lead to unpleasantness.
Then one day he threw himself a birthday party, possibly because he couldn’t locate anybody who felt like throwing it for him, and one of the guests was Herodias’s daughter from her former marriage. Her name was Salome, and she was both Herod’s step-daughter and his niece. As it happened, she was also a whiz at dancing. Sometime during the evening she ripped off a little number that so tickled Herod that, carried away by the general hilarity of the occasion as he was, he told her he’d give her anything she wanted up to and including half of his kingdom. Since she already had everything a girl could want and was apparently not eager for all the headaches that taking over half the kingdom would undoubtedly involve, she went out and told her mother, Herodias, to advise her what she ought to ask for.
It didn’t take Herodias twenty seconds to tell her. “The head of John,” she snapped out, so that’s what Salome went back and told Herod, adding only that she would prefer to have it served on a platter. No sooner was it brought to her than she got rid of it like a hot potato by handing it over to her mother. It’s not hard to see why.
Salome disappears from history at that point, and you can only hope that she took the platter with her to remind her that she should be careful where she danced that particular dance in the future, and that she should never ask her mother’s advice again about anything, and that even when you cut a saint’s head off, that doesn’t mean you’ve heard the last of him by a long shot.
Mark 6:17-22
-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words
We know from other scriptures that John was quite popular in the area, but he was not popular with Herod and Herodias. Herodias demanded that Herod get rid of John. According to Buechner’s version, Herod “said he’d be only too pleased to oblige her, but unfortunately John was a strong man with a strong following, and it might lead to unpleasantness.”
This is a story of courage and fear. John has the courage to call out the sins of Herod. Herod fears John’s words. Who wins? John ends up dead. Herod ends up with a vindicated wife. John ends up silent; Herod ends up doing whatever he pleases.
The television networks have been obsessed with courage and fear. They do not call it by those names, but that is what they have been watching. The battle between courage and fear is often based on truth. Who is afraid of the truth? Who is not afraid of the truth? Who is afraid of the consequences of telling the truth? Who will do anything to suppress the truth?
People who have great power are under tremendous pressure from every side. Even their own security is threatened. Like us, they are subject to personal pride, and the need to excel. Likewise they are pressured by peers, by the very people who support them and by the ambition of their colleagues. It is hard to resist when one’s own reputation and livelihood are at stake.
Herod had a reputation to protect. John punctured that reputation. It is easy for us to applaud John for calling out Herod. However, John was calling out everyone. Herod was not the only one who needed to repent.
The purpose of our confession every Sunday morning is to call us out. That petition in the Lord’s prayer, Forgive us our sins is not just a random guess but a calling out of our own sinfulness.
How do we handle the challenges placed before us? How do we handle the opportunity to tell the truth when it means we will be threatened, that our family will be mocked, when it causes us to lose some of our power or protection?
A few years later, Herod was only too happy to execute John’s cousin, Jesus. Again, the truth hurt. The truth threatened. Herod joined forces with Pilate to destroy Jesus. And it helped Herod’s shaky reputation immensely; he became one of Pilate’s favorite flunkies.
John the Baptist gave meaning to the word courage in his unswerving commitment to his mission of truth and promise. Herod Antipas gave meaning to the word fear in his commitment to self-preservation.
So, all we have to do is confess our sins and be forgiven, right? Not necessarily. According to one commentary I read, the Good News is threaded with bad news. Dr. Emerson B. Powery reminds us that “one thing is certain: agents of God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences.”
Martin Luther. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Martin Luther King, Jr. Exiled. Imprisoned. Persecuted. Executed. Adam Schiff. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Marie Yovanovitch. Gordon Sondland. Draw your own conclusions.
This is the only story in Mark that doesn’t include Jesus. It is a dance between, ultimately, John and Herod. But we also have to dance that dance: the steps so confusing and so hard to remember that we often end up in the arms of the wrong partner.
The easy part: we can skip going to the dance. Or we can tell ourselves we’ll switch partners later, when it’s safe. I like to think that no matter who I’m loyal to on earth, Jesus is always loyal to me and will forgive my selfishness and fear and welcome me with open arms. But is that how Jesus expects me to follow him? In his arms, bravely executing the intricate steps of love and compassion and courage, or do I just save him for the last dance, hoping he’ll be the one to take me home? Amen.

  1. Huffpost, Amy Erickson, Contributor Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Iliff School of Theology Mark 6:14-29: The Downfall of Giving Into Fear
    07/11/2012 07:58 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
  2. Ibid.
  3. Working Preacher, Emerson Powery Professor of Biblical Studies Messiah College Grantham, PA July 15, 2012.
  4. Ibid.

Cooties!

Mark 5:21-43 New International Version (NIV)
21 When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22 Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. 23 He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
31 “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
32 But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33 Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
35 While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
36 Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
37 He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38 When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39 He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40 But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). 42 Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43 He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
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Each Gospel writer records the thoughts and actions of Jesus in a different literary style. Mark is known for his “sandwich” style. He starts a story, then interrupts it with another story, then finishes the first story. Today, he starts with the story of a sick little girl, but interrupts it with the story about a hemorrhaging woman.After the woman is cured, Mark resumes the story of the little girl.
Comparing the woman and the girl and their different situations and context is fascinating, but that is better for a Bible study than for a sermon.
I’m not going to preach on literary style today; therefore, I should choose one story or the other. I could choose both and try to come up with a coherent theses that would include both stories, but that seems rather contrived. So, I’m choosing the story of the hemorrhaging woman, because many oof you can identify with that woman. Men, I won’t preach about how lucky you are to have your specific kind of plumbing. I know you have your own problems, but they are nothing compared to bleeding unpredictably.
This woman in our story lives with constant bleeding. She has no control over it. It’s not like a scratch that scabs over. It never stops.
To be her is to be embarrassed all the time. We women have been taught to be embarrassed about our bleeding, even though it is normal, natural and necessary.
I’ve told you before that the Israelites had more than the ten commandments, just as we have more than ten laws we follow. Like our laws, the Israelite laws were created to protect people. Some of the laws had to do with cleanliness and health. Others were created to keep people in their place, to control people so that they didn’t have too much power.
To be able to worship in the temple, or the synagogue, required cleanliness. If you were sick, you were not allowed into the synagogue until you were well Remember the lepers that Jesus cured. They were banned from the synagogue. It may have been because they were contagious or it may have been because they were unpleasant to look at.
Women were not allowed to worship when they were bleeding. After their periods, they had to go through ritual bathing. That meant for at least one Sabbath a month, women were not allowed to participate in worship.
This woman, following Jesus, had probably not worshipped for twelve years. Remember when you were a kid and avoided certain kids. Perhaps you accused each other of having cooties. You teased each other by trying to touch each other and give each other cooties. No one was supposed to touch this woman, because she had some kind of supposed “cooties.” So, no place where crowds gathered.
Considering the limited knowledge about disease at the time, these rules were genius. Consider the corona virus right now—people are being isolated because it can be transmitted through touch, even through proximity. Same was true for the people in Jesus’ time. They didn’t know what germs were, but they knew what germs could do.
This woman, this bleeding woman, has been going to doctors for twelve years. I don’t even want to imagine what kind of treatments she had been through, but Mark tells us “she had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors.” Add one more humiliation to her life experience.
Doctors require money, so after twelve years, she was not only sicker: she was poorer. She was ostracized—people crossed to the other side of the street when they saw her coming. She probably didn’t get any invitations to come over for some wine and figs. She was probably weak from the constant loss of blood. She was lonely and worn out.
The woman avoided groups of people. To join in the crowds surrounding Jesus required a great deal of bravery. She shouldn’t have been so close to so many people, but she took a chance. In the excitement of seeing Jesus, people were pushing and shoving to get closer to Jesus. How many touched her as they maneuvered to be next to Jesus?
She was desperate. She broke rules to get to Jesus. She was afraid to speak to him directly. After all, she had been effectively silenced following the laws of her time. Now was her chance. She moved steadily through the crowd, squeezing past one person at a time. Closer. Closer. Then she was right behind him. The moment had come. But she could not bring herself to call out to him. That would have attracted attention to her. Somebody would have seen her and yelled, “Cooties!” So she stealthily reached out her hand to simply touch Jesus’ clothing. One little touch, one little squeeze of the linen or wool of his robe, one moment of contact—and like electricity coursing through wires at the touch of switch, healing coursed through the woman. She was good to go; now to make her getaway. But she was caught! Jesus felt that surge of electricity, that surge of power, of healing leave him as it moved into the woman. He stopped. Why? Why did he bother? And why did he feel this touch, when he must have been touched by dozens of people in the press of the crowd?
This touch was energized by faith. There is no metaphor to apply it to us. We’re never going to touch that ancient fabric. So, nice story, let’s move on, as the woman did, as Jesus did.
Here’s the thing. We have the power of that exchange. Every time you reach out to touch another person, through a hug, through a hand shake, through a donation of a box of corn flakes to a food bank., through a prayer for healing, through a word of comfort, you carry within that action the power of Jesus.
Matthew 25: 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
When you touch the one who is rejected at the border, when you touch the one who has committed sins that are beyond your range of experience, when you touch someone who stands outside the circle waiting for someone to notice—you are allowing Jesus to touch that person.
Think about the power you have. You have the power to vanquish cooties!!! By your words, by your actions, you have that same power that Jesus had. You may not stop anyone from bleeding or puking; you many not cure the flu or obliterate a cancer, but you are touching the person that needs a touch of healing, a touch of acceptance, a touch of equality. You have the power of Jesus to change a life. You have the power of Jesus to welcome someone into the group, to welcome someone into social interaction, to welcome someone into a safe space.
Here’s the thing: you won’t feel someone tugging on your sleeve. You’ll need to use your Christians skills of loving God and loving your neighbor to perceive where to use your power. You will have to talk to people who disgust you, who frighten you, who annoy you. You will have to ignore the lines that sin has drawn between and among us.
In our culture, we have drawn so many lines that it’s like looking at rabbit tracks across the snow. We have to ignore the lines. We have to take off those protective goggles that how people as red and blue, as black and white, as gay and straight, as energetic and lazy, as sick and well. We have to throw those goggles aside and see every person for what they are: children of God, creations of God, made in God’s image. Those lines that we draw, that we see, that we use to navigate the world, are imaginary. The images we see, are, in some respects, imaginary. When we say we are created in the image of God, are we talking about physical attributes? I think not. We are talking about everything that is NOT physical about us. The problem arises when we see only the physical image of a person, while neglecting to find the image of God within the person. We let our physical reaction determine our perception of the person.
I had a couple thousand students over years of teaching. Do they all remember me the same? Absolutely not! Some hated my guts, some still adore me. Why is that? I was always the same person in the front of the room. But perceptions are not predictable or logical. My teaching took a turn for the better when I finally remembered that each of my students was made in the image of God. It made all the difference.
As you go about your work and play, look for God in the people you meet. Look for God in the people that anger you, that disgust you, that push your buttons. Also, you don’t have to understand WHY people act a certain way before you can help them. You don’t have to understand WHY someone is sick to help them. You don’t have to understand WHY someone wants to have the same rights as you to help them. You don’t have to understand WHY someone can’t hold down a job to help them. I think the only person Jesus ever criticized for asking for help was the Canaanite woman asking for help; when he refused, she put him in his place.
Tomorrow, we citizens will divide ourselves with a variety of perspectives. There will be shouting, anger, fear, disappointment. That is how we sort out how to control the people we share space with. But if each of us sees God at work in each person—-will we find ourselves acting differently? There’s a reason that Democrats and Republicans caucus in different rooms, in different ways. There are reasons, good reasons, to avoid the caucuses. But let us look for where God is in each person, regardless. And let us show the God with in us.
Separating God and politics is a good idea for the law of the land, but do not EVER let your politics be separate from the faith you follow. Jesus walked into the middle of the crowd, constantly surrounded by temple authorities and Jewish soldiers. The Gospels give us examples of Jesus being approached not only by sick old women, but by temple authorities—-Jairus—and soldiers—the Centurion (Matthew 8). In the end, Jesus was killed, not for theological reasons, but for political reasons. That’s how sinful and divided the people of the world can be.
We cannot be everywhere. Jesus, during his lifetime on earth was not everywhere. He stayed within a radius of less than a hundred miles. The miracle of Jesus is that he is God. God is everywhere, omniscient, omnipresent. Much of God’s presence depends on us. So, your challenge this week: touch someone who has cooties. Amen.

Torture

Mark 5: 1-20 5 They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3 This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. 4 For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7 He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” 8 For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
9 Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10 And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
11 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12 The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13 He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
14 Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15 When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16 Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17 Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
18 As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
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This is a fascinating story and really is better presented as a Bible Study than as a sermon because there are so many details and because the details need to be explained—in detail!—for us to understand what happened.
Briefly, Jesus and his disciples arrive in “the region of the Gerasenes,” that is, somewhere east of the Sea of Galilee. They are confronted by a man, who immediately shouts at Jesus, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”
The man was well-known in the area and was probably viewed as anywhere from a nuisance to a threat. Perhaps you have lived in a community where someone similar lived; the common reaction is something like, “Here coms so-and-so. Wonder what she or he is up to now.” Reactions toward such a person vary from engaging them on their level to ignoring them to harassing them.
Many of us think we are too sophisticated to believe in demons. It seems like a pre-industrial age description of something that we can nowadays diagnose. Are people possessed by demons nowadays? Are people forced to act by the demons within them?
I think we can make a case for that.
First of all, let’s talk about the symptoms of demon possession.
(1) Severe personality change. (2) Anti-social behavior. (3) Spiritual insight. (4) Super-human strength. (5) Torment. (6) Tendency towards self-destruction. (https://bible.org/seriespage/9-gerasene-demoniac-mark-51-20#TopOfPage)
These are 21st Century terms, but they accurately describe the symptoms of the demoniacs in the Gospels. These are afflictions that seem to be a part of the human condition, no matter the century, no matter the culture. We may view them differently, we may seek different answers and different treatments, but the people Jesus served had to deal with the same symptoms we do.
None of us are immune from any of these symptoms. If we have not experienced them ourselves, we have observed them in others. And, often, I fear, we have watched on our own loved ones battle these demons.
Naming these demons is important. In ancient times, names held real power. It was important to baptize babies, because they received their names at baptism. There was real danger if a baby didn’t have a name, because, it was believed, the fairies would steal the child. Names gives us safety.
In many cultures, people have secret names. Anyone who knows your secret name has power over you. In fact, that’s true for us. If you are walking down the street, or sitting in a room, and you hear your name called, you are distracted, you interrupt whatever you are doing, and you look to see who called your name. Remember sitting in your desk in the classroom, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call your name? As a teacher, I remember the power I had over my students, just by being able to say their name. If I said a name, that meant the student was expected to do something or had done something. That is power.
This demon in Mark gave its name as Legion, most likely a reference to a military formation. A Roman Legion at the time had between 4,000 and 6,000 men. So, when the the word “Legion” comes out of the man’s mouth, he acknowledges that he is tortured by many, many demons.
What demons do we acknowledge?
In others, we may have witnessed some of the symptoms of demoniac possession—severe personality change, anti-social behavior, torment and a tendency towards self-destruction. These demons we have put in the hands of professionals. We consult counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists to cast out, or at least tame, these demons.
I worked for a short while as a chaplain-apprentice at Genesis. I frequently visited patients in the Behavioral Health Department, or “psych ward” as it is popularly called. There, I witnessed the demons of depression and delusion and despair, all of them sources of torment. I saw examples of pain and fear in the Emergency Department, but in Behavioral Health, I saw torment. We like to think that if we are in the hospital, the pain, the fear, the torment will be addressed and assuaged, through the knowledge and skills of the medical staff. What I witnessed in Behavioral Health was the demons of mental illness. They are much tougher than any germ, any virus.
I have witnessed this torture in my own family, indeed, as a patient myself. It is frustrating because, first of all, it is hard to describe to others. Quite often the advice one receives is “Cheer up!” as if all one had to do was change one’s attitude as easily as one changes one’s underwear. My own boss told me that it was his understanding that people like me WANTED to feel depressed. Believe me, nobody wants to feel depressed. The difference between these demons and physical ailments is that hope is destroyed. When you break your leg, you expect it to heal. When you have the flu, you expect to recover. With the demons of mental illness, you have that option stripped away, just as cancer strips away immunity. You have no expectations.
Another demon that most of us have witnessed is addiction. Again, the addiction has taken over and strips the person of any ability to live a normal life. Even if the person is able to stop drinking alcohol or stop taking drugs or whatever the addiction may be, the addiction, the torture of wanting that drink, that drug, that high, that comfort, never leaves. The torture, the demon never leaves. I’m speaking from observation here, observation of people I love.
So, this is a pretty depressing sermon, so far. And the afflictions I have described are not in my purview of treatment. So what can I offer?
I mentioned that naming someone gives power over the person. Let me suggest that naming our own demons gives us power over them. Instead of agonizing over that which we cannot control, let us instead name our own demons. What gnaws at your mind? What distracts you from your own happiness? What keeps you from accomplishing your goals? And how do you discern your own demons?
I look at how I spend my time. I look at what I don’t do. I look at what goes wrong. My demons are in the middle of all that. My demons are often my own negative thoughts about myself. My demons are my fears about the world I see on my television. My demons are my frustrations that I can’t help my friends, my family with their own problems.
If those aren’t your demons, you have seen them in someone else. The parent who worries constantly about children or grandchildren. The boss who is never satisfied. The person who talks too much and needs to dominate the conversation. The person who doesn’t tolerate disagreement.
Once you’ve named your demons, they lose power. What advice did Jesus give the tortured man in our story?
“Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
Here’s the thing: even if we are at the mercy of our demons, there is someone who helps us manage those demons. They may not be cast into a herd of 2000 pigs, but they can be quieted by the gentle strength we receive through our faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s called trust. We trust God to see us through any and all conflicts, any battle, any struggle. We can trust God to show us that God is greater than any demon, that God has the power that conquers all evil: the power of love. We have received that love in the form of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Unlike any god before or since, our God has experienced our pain and can, with authority and with empathy, bring us through to peace. And again, what does God tell that recovered and renewed man? “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
Don’t keep the good news to yourself. Help others to rise above and beyond their own demons by sharing the Good News that has saved you. Amen.

What you don't know… Mark 4:1-34

Mark 4:1-34 New International Version (NIV)
4 Again Jesus began to teach by the lake.
The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge.
2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed.
4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil.
It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.
6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.
8 Still other seed fell on good soil.
It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.”
9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.
11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.
But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
13 Then Jesus said to them,
“Don’t you understand this parable?
How then will you understand any parable?
14 The farmer sows the word.
15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown.
As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.
16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.
17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
21 He said to them,
“Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed?
Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?
22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.
23 If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”
24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued.
“With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. 25 Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”
26 He also said,
“This is what the kingdom of God is like.
A man scatters seed on the ground.
27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.
28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.
29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said,
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?
31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.
32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand.
34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable.
But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
+++
Parables are open to multiple interpretations.( http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3640) Regardless of interpretation, Jesus told them to teach us something.
Jesus’ stories were told to people who lived in a time and culture so different from ours that it’s a wonder they still apply to humans. What can non-agrarian people learn from descriptions of first-century farming methods? In fact, what can modern farmers, with their million-dollar investments of machinery, glean from a parable about primitive farming methods?
The farmer Jesus describes would have planted seed in a manner that would seem backwards to the modern farmer, or even to the person who plants a few marigold seeds in a flower pot. That farmer, long ago, would have first scattered the seed, then plowed it in. Nowadays, each seed is drilled into ground already prepared by machinery.
Contrast a farmer carrying a bag of seed to the field in the year 6 C.E. with the farmer carrying a bag of seed to the field in the year 2020. The first century farmer would likely have raised his own seed, saved from the previous year’s crop. It would be loose in a cloth bag or in a clay jug. He would have sorted it with his own hands, gathered it, a handful at a time and tossed it over the ground in front of him. Most of it would have fallen where it was intended to grow, but Jesus describes seed falling where it won’t grow—on rocky ground or among weeds that would overpower it. By the time the farmer plows the seed into the ground, birds would have found it and feasted on a few bare seeds. Not until the farmer plows the field, thus burying the seed, does the seed have a chance to grow.
The 21st Century Farmer also uses seed from a bag. However, the farmer has not grown the seed; the seed comes from another farm, whose owner is unknown to the farmer. The seed in the modern bag is weighed and counted, down to the kernel, probably 80,000 kernels per bag. The farmer pours it into the planter box or hopper, without touching the seed. Pressurized air blows each seed through a tube into the ground. Once the seed is placed in the furrow, which is also prepared by the planter, another part of the machinery covers the seed.
The difference between method and scale is astounding. One method is hands-on, imprecise; the other is hands-off and precise down to the distance between kernels.
Does the parable of the sower need to be updated? How would you tell a parable using your farmer friend’s operation? What would that parable teach? What can be learned about life from planting a million seeds at a time, about bathing those seeds in chemicals to facilitate their growth? Would there be any variety in the outcome of the planted seeds—scorched by sun, choked by weeds, eaten by birds? The purpose of corn planted in our surrounding fields is to produce identical plants without one seed wasted.
In fact, it is my understanding, (This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways) that if any seed is leftover from planting, it cannot be saved for the next year, but instead is carefully weighed and counted and returned to the dealer. How does that translate into sharing the word of God, if that is what Jesus original parable is about?
Well, it doesn’t. Or at least I don’t know of any attempts.
That is one of the challenges to our faith: how can a book written so long ago be relevant to people in a culture who don’t know a thing about agriculture or animal husbandry. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” people knew that there was such a thing as a bad shepherd. When Jesus said, “The grain was scattered,” everybody could picture the scene exactly.
But who among us knows an actual shepherd? The sheep with whom I grew up never had a shepherd. They were fenced in, confined to a few acres and, when the grass ran out, were confined further to a warm barn and dined on slices of rich alfalfa hay and mouthfuls of ground oats. Water appeared in troughs, not at the bottom of a treacherous ravine.
Who among us has seen a sheep? Who among us has seen a bushel of corn? In the setting of our congregation, we’re very familiar with these organic creations, but thirty miles from here, who knows more than what has been taught in a children’s book or a nursery rhyme?
If you are not familiar with the ways of planting a crop, as opposed to a pot of flowers, if you are not familiar with the basic tenets of animal husbandry, what good are the parables, the metaphors, the analogies?
I have a couple answers.
First of all, the simplicity of Jesus’ basic stories are easy to understand. The concept of a seed growing in the ground is universal. The concept of caring for animals is universal. If you haven’t had the opportunity to care for a flock of sheep, you’ve probably had the opportunity to care for a dog or a cat. If you’ve eaten anything besides meat, you know that your fruits and vegetables have grown somewhere, or you’ve observed plants growing in yards or in parks. Caring and growing are universal concepts.
Second, nobody understands all the parables perfectly. From the three-year-old coloring a picture on a Sunday School worksheet to seminary professors who can’t stop studying, the parables speak differently.
Third, Jesus also spoke directly: Love God. Love your neighbor.
Fourth, trying to make a parable relevant by updating it with current technology is like riding into a box canyon. There’s nowhere to go but back to the beginning.
The beginning is Jesus Christ. Jesus practiced what he preached: healing, listening, praying, sharing…if we don’t understand the parables, we do understand the intention, because Jesus modeled it.
Jesus didn’t just tell parables: he often explained them. The Parable of the Sower is an example of that. Read further in the chapter and you will understand what all those images of sheep and seeds meant—the way Jesus intended.
14 The farmer sows the word.
15 Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown.
As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them.
16 Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy.
17 But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
18 Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.
20 Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.”
Jesus understood people so well. That made him very different from most other authorities. He was nothing like Zeus or Caesar. Do not take that for granted. Jesus had so much in common with you and everyone you know. And the people who walked the dusty roads with him, who sat on a grassy hillside or a sandy each to listen to him, had the same DNA, the same hungers, the same pains, the same joys as you. I can’t vouch for Jesus’ DNA—would’t that be fascinating!—but I can tell you that people lived in the same kind of body you do, and used their own talents, skills, and possessions to the best of their ability, just as you do. And, perhaps most importantly, their minds worked like yours. Sometimes curious, sometimes stubborn, sometimes afraid, sometimes logical.
So these parables—take them as they have been recorded, glean what you can and engage with all of Jesus, not just the literary teachings. It is enough. The key is love. Love is complicated, with many manifestations and expressions. But it is also universal and available to everyone. Love Jesus. Love your neighbor. Jesus already loves you. Amen.

“We have never seen anything like this!" Mark 2:1-22

Mark 2:1-22 New International Version (NIV)
2 A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. 2 They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. 3 Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
13 Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”
19 Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.
21 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. 22 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

+++
“We have never seen anything like this!” That is the reaction of those who are lucky enough to see Jesus in action during his days on earth.
“We have never seen anything like this!” Have we seen anything like this?
Have we seen standing room only as people line up to hear what Jesus has to say? Have we seen anyone chop a hole in the roof, just to make sure a friend had a chance at being healed by Jesus?
Have we seen anyone get angry when sins are forgiven? Have we seen anyone challenge Jesus’ authority? Have we seen a paralyzed man get up and walk away as if he were never paralyzed?
“We have never seen anything like this!” And yet, we believe.
To be in Jesus’ presence in Capernaum was to see something new, different, incredible. To be in Jesus’ presence in Capernaum was more than entertainment. Jesus offered words and actions that were heretofore unknown. And one more element of surprise: to be in Jesus’ presence was to witness conflict and accusation.
Not only did Jesus teach. Not only did Jesus heal. Jesus also argued. The local religious authorities were just as interested in Jesus as the peasants, the fishermen, the farmers, the beggars, the tax collectors. But the religious authorities had something to lose. Jesus was colliding with the people who kept a precarious peace among the Jewish community. The Jewish rulers helped to negotiate the right for Jews to continue to worship and to follow their own laws— a great privilege in a nation where everyone was expected to worship Caesar, worship the king. Because of that privileged and precarious peace, the authorities had to make sure that no one stirred up or challenged the status quo. To attract attention was to attract Roman soldiers and to attract Roman soldiers was to attract the attention of the Roman rulers.
Jesus was preaching something new. “New” attracts attention. Attracting attention means attracting crowds. A crowd can take on its own personality
Jesus did not close up shop or stop teaching when he was challenged by the authorities. He argued. He explained. He challenged. When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralyzed man, that was a red flag to the local teachers.
6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus read their minds. He said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
Only God can forgive sins—-and in those times, that was the purview of the priests. Sins were forgiven at the temple, after an offering was presented. The offering was sometimes purchased on temple property, which meant a thriving side business and dependable temple income. In fact, the practice of sacrifice was a major part of Jerusalem’s economy. (https://www.nbcnews.com/sciencemain/animal-sacrifice-temple-powered-ancient-jerusalems-economy-8C11073738) Any threat to the practice was a threat to the economy. A threat to the economy was a threat to the citizens.
Another way the citizenry was controlled is not new to us. Status was important. On the bottom rung were the people who most wanted to hear Jesus: the fishermen, the farmers, the unemployed. Also on the bottom rung were the people who collaborated with the Romans. That included Levi, whom Jesus called to follow him. Levi was a tax collector, which meant that he collected taxes from the Jewish people to give to the Roman people, which was another way the Romans let the Jewish people exist as their own community with their own beliefs. The problem was that tax collectors were known to exploit their clients and had a reputation for charging more than was due to the Romans, thus lining their own pockets. Cheaters and collaborators—not the kind of person you wanted your daughter to marry.
When Jesus welcomed these lowlifes into the community, that was an affront to those who thought of themselves as upstanding citizens.
So what does this have to do with us? We know our sins are forgiven. And nobody challenges us. We know Jesus works miracles, but they are subtle and can as often be attributed to medical work or coincidence. We seldom have to argue with anyone about Jesus.
It seems Jesus has done all the work for us. Here’s the thing. Jesus may not walk among us, attracting crowds and upsetting those in power.
If there are no crowds, if we’re not attracting attention, what’s the point?
That is the point. When Jesus returned to the right hand of God, he left us with us an assignment, a commission.
We are now the ones who must forgive and heal. We are the ones who must feed and comfort. We are the ones who must attract attention.
Next Sunday, we will gather for our Annual Meeting. You will receive a list of what our congregation has accomplished during the year 2019. We have brought forgiveness and healing to this community. We have fed and comforted this community. And we have attracted attention. So far, none of this has attracted the attention of authorities who see us as a threat. So far, we are meek and mild and welcome.
Praise God that we are able to be the hands and feet and mouth of Jesus without worrying about breaking the law or “getting caught.” We can practice our faith publicly, just as Jesus did. Let us give thanks for the saints who sacrificed reputation and life to work with Jesus. Let us give thanks that we have the privilege and the ability to serve in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Would You Touch a Leper? Mark 1:21-45

Mark 1:21-45 New International Version (NIV)
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.
+++
 One word stands out today.  It doesn’t appear in every translation.  It is surprising, somewhat shocking.  It appears in the part about Jesus healing the leper.
40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.

Jesus was indignant.  In other words, he was angry or annoyed by the man approaching him.  Why?
I think this is worth studying because  we picture Jesus so often as “Jesus, meek, and mild.” 
Notice that Jesus was not repulsed by the man.  Anybody else in the crowd would have been.  Nobody would come near a man or woman with leprosy.  
How often we separate ourselves from people by labeling them.  The man is not called “a man with leprosy.” When he is called a leper, two things happen:  1) he is denied his identity as a man and 2) he is moved to the margins of society, to the realm of forgettable, avoidable, neglected. 

Labeling is a convenience for us; we can’t describe every person we see in detail, so we use labels: young, old, black, white, short, tall, straight, gay,  healthy, sick. In each of this polarities, one label sends the person to the margins, depending on the the environment.  Most often the labels “old,” “black,” “short,” “gay”and “sick” place a person in a less desirable category.  Once one is placed in such a category, one become less likely to receive the treatment afforded those who are young, white, tall, straight, healthy.  That is a gross generalization, of course, but think about it.  How do you react emotionally to people in those categories? Do you automatically feel sorry for someone old, black, short, gay, sick?  Or, to be perfectly honest, if you are young or white or tall or straight or healthy, do you feel just a little bit superior to someone who is old or black or short or gay or sick?  
Again, I remind you that I’m generalizing, but I want you to think about how Jesus reacted and why, and then about how you react and why.
Jesus was indignant.  That is the NIV (New International Translation) 
Other translations say
Mark 1:41 Contemporary English Version (CEV): 41 Jesus felt sorry for the man. So he put his hand on him and said, “I want to! Now you are well.” 
Mark 1:41 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV): 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”
Mark 1:41-45 The Message (MSG):41-45 Deeply moved, Jesus put out his hand, touched him, and said, “I want to. Be clean.” 
Raj Nadella, Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, explains why Jesus would have been indignant: 
Considering the nature of Jesus’ mission and his explicit disapproval of structures of dehumanization, especially the anger that characterized his response at the temple, it is more likely that Jesus was angry about what the society has done to the leper. (Raj Nadella, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4226)
And there is where we come in.  Do we simply feel sorry for the marginalized, for the alienated, for the rejected?  That is dangerous.  Why?
Because feeling sorry for someone is a dead end.  It precludes action. First of all, it soothes our emotions, shuts them down, and allows us to move on with our lives undisturbed. Feeling sorry for someone or for a group of people does not inspire us to change. We don’t feel compelled to change ourselves or to work to change the environment of those whom we pity. Second, as a society, we move those pathetic groups into societal structures organized to benefit the successful and the acceptable while trapping the unacceptable in environments, much like the lepers in Jesus’ time were separated so that people did not have to be exposed to the danger of touching them.  
So, why is that?  Why can’t pity lead to change?  Let me again quote Professor Nadella:
The risk for those of us who want to advocate on behalf of the alienated is that we could lose some of our own social and political capital with those in power who will do everything in their capacity to keep those structures intact. Our society has stigmatized and alienated many who have been considered outcasts for a variety of unjustifiable reasons and denied them full participation in the society. This includes people who are falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned. How often are we willing to take risks and undermine established norms to help those who have been victimized by the society? The church has an obligation to explore ways to fully restore them back into society.
Where does that put us? Does our compassion move us to action?  What can we do?  We have plenty of hands-off ways to help “the less fortunate,” another term that denigrates those living outside our invisible borders.  (I’m talking about imaginary borders that keep us out of touch with the homeless, the addict, the disgusting).  We have the Salvation Army, which allows us to give, from a distance, our discarded clothing and pots and pans and furniture.  We have food banks, which allows us, from a safe distance, to hand out food to people whose cupboards are empty. We have blood banks which allow us to donate blood without getting our hands soiled by the blood of others.  We can safely show compassion in ways that surely are acceptable to Jesus.
But when do we ever do more than slap bandaids on wounds? When do we ever advocate to tear down the walls that keep people in dead end and dangerous environments.  And should we do that? Because that means confronting people and institutions who hold great power over us.  People try—by writing letters to the editor, by sending postcards to their senators, by trying to put new people in power. We call that “getting political” and being political is controversial, if we confine the definition to American party politics. My friend, Ray, says I should avoid politics and stick to Jesus.  I tell Ray, Jesus is the most political person who ever lived.  Politics is how people act in groups to try to get along with each other.  Oddly enough, nowadays, we thing of how people act when they are fighting with each other.  
Is confronting the powerful wrong?  I stress about children in cages, about children and parents separated at the southern border of our country. I worry that I’m not doing anything to help them.  Then I remind myself: I have plenty of ministry to do right where I am.  I care for people who have lost their jobs, who have health crises, who are alienated from friends or family. Jesus didn’t confront the government—until the government noticed what he was doing. 
Allow me to quote Raj Nadella again: 
If we only respond with compassion, we are merely addressing symptoms of injustice but not eradicating roots of the system that engendered it in the first place.
Are we, as Christians, called to reform the sinful causes of oppression and injustice? Or are we only called to follow Jesus within the safe space we have worked so hard to create for ourselves?
Is Nadella right? 
A merely compassionate Jesus is a reflection of Christianity that has domesticated him, erased references to his anger and adopted itself to serve the interests of powers that be.  …How often do we stop with compassion and not allow room for righteous anger to facilitate change? Have we lost our capacity for moral outrage when we witness vast sections of populations pushed to the margins and denied full participation in the society?  
Jesus took a chance and touched lepers. Jesus took a chance and called out demons. Those people received not only healing, but love and acceptance.
When I donate a warm coat to the homeless shelter, I’m not sharing love or friendship.  When I donate blood, the person who receives it doesn’t know my name and I don’t know his or hers.  Perfectly sanitary.  The person who receives food at the food bank only sees me for a brief amount of time a couple times a year. We don’t become friends. I don’t know anything about her except how many live in her house. I don’t even know if she lives in a house or an apartment.  
Our love is sterilized. Our compassion is one-dimensional. Our actions are wrapped in bubble wrap.  It’s not wrong.  It’s just not enough. Or is it. What do we do?  I don’t know.  I’m letting you figure that out.  I’m doing my little political two-step with my elected officials.  That’s more than enough risk for me because my actions have the possibility of alienating you and preventing me from truly being your pastor, in the most pastoral sense of the word. I am aware of that risk.  I could lose your trust; I am risking that when I take a stand on an issue or engage in political dialogue.
The United Church of Christ put out a statement yesterday asking the government to avoid war with Iran.  Is that what a church should do?  Or should we just pray for the wounded and the families of those killed in action?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did not put out a statement.  I was able to start quite a long argument on the ELCA Facebook page yesterday. My cleverest statement, I thought was “Will we be the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) (of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany) or the Acquiescing Church, (giving in to whatever our government allows for us?)” 
Jesus risked touching a leper.  That made him, according to Jewish law, impure. He could have been ostracized, ignored, banned from appearing in public.  My question for each of us is this: “Do I have the courage to touch a leper?”  Amen.

Peripatetic U-Turn

Mark 1:1-20 New International Version (NIV)
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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Sometimes I wonder about things that I have always believed. Sometimes I have doubts about what I am learning in seminary. Sometimes I think that much of what I’m expected to believe is hocus pocus, made up by old men who had too much time on their hands.
I’m not the first. I’m not the only one. If we don’t ask questions, we don’t learn much. No matter how many lectures you’ve had, the lessons you learn best are those that answer your questions. The toddler knows that. One of the first questions a child learns to ask is “Why?” “Don’t do that.” “Why”” If the child does not receive a satisfactory explanation, the child goes ahead and touches the hot stove or spills the glass of milk or hits a sibling. How many times is a “why” question impossible to answer? “Why do I have to wear clothes?” ” Why do I have to put my toys away?” “Why do I have to eat?” The answers to those questions are long and complicated, so often we parents resort to answering with “Because I said so.”
That is a never a satisfactory answer, but it is a somewhat effective, if veiled, threat.
What questions do you wish you would have asked in high school? I wish I would have asked why communism was evil. I don’t think I was ever told why. I was just told that it was evil. After teaching my own students lessons from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I know why it’s bad and I taught them so. The weird thing, is if communism worked like the dictionary definition, it would be a good thing. In fact, probably one of the best lessons you’ve had on the benefits of communism is in the book of Acts.
Acts 4:32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
How does communism fail? It morphs into something different, like totalitarianism, or a dictatorship or an oligarchy. In other words, tyranny, with a handful of people grabbing all the power and the other 99% doing without the means to pursue happiness.
And how does that metamorphosis happen? Sin. Sin. Sin and all its cousins: greed, selfishness, mistrust, jealousy, lust, pride, sloth.
Which brings me to the question raised by today’s gospel lesson: “Why did we need to have our sins forgiven?” I’m sure I’ve been told why my sins need to be forgiven, but it escapes me in these later year of my life.
John, known as John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, had one message: repent! You need to confess your sins.
John’s message didn’t stop there. Repentance was the only way to prepare for what was coming: Jesus Christ.
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I am going out on a limb today because I don’t have answers. Maybe by the time I’ve completed all sixteen classes at Wartburg Theological Seminary, I’ll know the “right” answer. In the meantime, I can’t let this question rest. It is important for me to understand why repentance is important, not only for myself, but for you. As your preacher and teacher, I am obligated to help you nurture your faith. Your faith does not exist in stasis. It is not unlike a plant that needs sustenance. It is not unlike a plant that continues to grow. Our faith is alive, and, like a plant, needs nourishment. Without nourishment, it can die. With nourishment, it grows. It doesn’t just sit there.
With that in mind, what part does repentance have in the nourishment of our faith?
John is not the tent revival or television preacher haranguing the crowd for their sins. My gut feeling is that his focus is not on particular sins. He is not a single-issue voter. We live in a culture where some sins are more newsworthy than others. Anything having to do with human sexuality is fair game. Murder is a popular topic on the evening news. Stealing can get headlines. John is not interested in the details. He is interested in the results. He expects results via one method: repentance.
Repentance in its English translation and in common usage has lost some of its power. Many of us think of repentance as an emotional reaction of feeling sorry. The founder of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller, used to say, “For most people, repentance means feeling sorry for getting caught.” (John Petty, https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2018/12/advent-2-luke-3-1-6.html).
The original Greek word is metanoia. Metanoia is used to describe an action of “turning” and then “moving in a new direction.” It has very little to do with one’s emotions, and everything to do with a change in one’s actions. (Ibid.)
John’s call for repentance for the forgiveness of sins reflects a common practice of the time: cleansing oneself before entering the Temple. It was not unlike the practice in our family: we bathed once a week, on Saturday night, to get ready for church. We did’t bathe on Sunday night to get ready for another week of school. The purpose was to be clean for church. That sounds gross to a culture that bathes daily, but it suited us just fine.
This brings me back to my question: why do we need forgiveness? To be clean. But why do we need to be clean? That is, why should we want to be free of sin?
Sin can be a pretty comfortable state of being. After all, sinning seems to often be the easier alternative. It is easier to be angry with someone than to have patience with them. It is easier to steal something than to work for it. It is easier to swear than to hold our tongues. It is easier to slap and hit than to reason with someone. It is easier to repeat gossip than to ferret out the truth. It is easier to ignore someone than to help them.
So, if it’s easier, if we sin all the time, why is forgiveness important?
I’m trying to figure that out. Here is what I’ve come up with—so far.
Sin is like a barrier. God made us to be in community with each other—to love each other. Commandments four through ten are all about loving our neighbor, loving our family members. Sin puts up a barrier between us and prevents us from living in harmony.
Likewise, sin puts a barrier between us and God. Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the garden? Why do they hide from God? Because they had sinned.
In our culture, and every culture before us, we’ve been able to rationalize sin, even flaunted it. Simultaneously, that sin removes God from our operating systems. When we shut God out of our lives, via sinning, we live differently. We still have values, but they shift. We become loyal to power and money and pleasure. We spend more time and money grooming our own bodies than caring for the body of Christ. Our loyalty to God and our neighbor shrinks into a tokenism of going to church once in awhile and donating used clothing to the Salvation army.
Let’s visit that word metanoia again. Raj Nadella, Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary explains that metanoia
describes a process of stepping out of one’s existing mindset and adopting a characteristically different mindset. Metanoia has the connotation of having one’s perception of the world and of oneself transformed, adopting a radically different worldview and relating to the world in new ways. Metanoia can also mean making a U turn and changing course. (Raj Nadella, http://www.workingpreacher. org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4335)
What does this call to repentance mean for us? Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Theological Seminary, puts repentance in a broader perspective.
For this week, we are being called to repentance not for our own individual sins which we know are many and perhaps easier to admit because we can keep them to ourselves. Who would even have to know? It’s just between Jesus and me. The harder truth this week is to admit our communal sin, our national sin, our global sin, in the presence of one another, that seems regularly to refuse repentance in favor of blame and ignorance. (Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3446)
Words from these wise professors shines a different light on forgiveness.
It is not about me in isolation. It is about me in relationship to all of God’s people and all of God’s creation. It is not to make me a better person. It is to make me a better neighbor.
Forgiveness of sins is not the end goal. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been confused. Forgiveness of sin is about goodness of action.Forgiveness of sins allows us to make that u-turn and move forward to participate in the Kingdom of God.
Think, for a minute, of a time when sin became a barrier between you and another person. Think, for a minute, of a time, when you let inexperience or ignorance dismiss an entire group of people as being bad. Think, for a minute, of a time, when sin separated you from someone you love. Think, for a time, when sin made you cross to the other side of the street, metaphorically, to avoid someone. Was it the other person’s sin? Or was it your sin?
That brings us to another perspective on sin: forgiving each other. Again, sin puts up a barrier. Have you ever waited for someone to ask for your forgiveness before you could forgive them? What if we offered forgiveness without being asked? What if I forgave you for hurting my feelings without you saying you’re sorry? What if husbands forgave wives and wives forgave husbands for hurting them—without pouting or getting even? What if parents forgave children and children forgave parents for disappointing them—without throwing shortcomings in each other’s faces? What if neighbors forgave neighbors for crossing boundaries—without calling in a lawyer? All without being asked to forgive. Just do it!
John preached repentance for forgiveness of sins. Why? Maybe it’s because we need to get rid of sin before we can be the good people God created us to be.
I think I have a better understanding of forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins is not for my personal benefit. It is for me to be the nourishment, the inspiration, the safety net, the chicken soup, the bouquet of flowers, the sunny sky for someone else. Forgiveness frees me to be the kind of person God created. Forgiveness sends me in the right direction, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Thank you for listening to me try to figure this out. Thank you for walking this journey with me. May we always freely forgive, not waiting, not giving up, but freely forgiving each other so that we can walk together, in Jesus’ name. Amen.