Doing Right 1 Peter 3:13-22

13 Can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds? 14 Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you. So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do. 15 Honor Christ and let him be the Lord of your life.

Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. 16 Give a kind and respectful answer and keep your conscience clear. This way you will make people ashamed for saying bad things about your good conduct as a follower of Christ.17 You are better off to obey God and suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong.

18 

Christ died once for our sins.
An innocent person died
for those who are guilty.
Christ did this
to bring you to God,
when his body
was put to death
and his spirit
was made alive.

19 Christ then preached to the spirits that were being kept in prison. 20 They had disobeyed God while Noah was building the boat, but God had been patient with them. Eight people went into that boat and were brought safely through the flood.

21 Those flood waters were like baptism that now saves you. But baptism is more than just washing your body. It means turning to God with a clear conscience, because Jesus Christ was raised from death. 22 Christ is now in heaven, where he sits at the right side of God. All angels, authorities, and powers are under his control.

++++++++++++

I’ve collected a variety of Lenten practices for us to consider during this season.  All of the practices are aimed at faith formation, at making us stronger, more intentional followers of Jesus.

The first two verses of our epistle lesson speak to the practices of Lent.

13 Can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds? 14 Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you. So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.

13 Can anyone really harm you for being eager to do good deeds? Have you ever held back from doing a good deed?  Were you afraid of what people would say about you?  Were you afraid the good deed would be rejected or not appreciated? Can good deeds cause problems? If you were to sit for awhile and contemplate these questions, you’d probably come up with some good examples. Did you ever stand up for someone on the playground and get pushed around for it?  Did you ever try to stop someone from saying bad things about another person?  I take a little heat sometimes for being too “churchy,” too goody-goody.  My solution is to stay away from people who don’t share my respect or compassion for people who might be labeled losers. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it’s one way to keep my temper and my friends at the same time.

What is Paul’s answer to this dilemma? 14 Even if you have to suffer for doing good things, God will bless you. So stop being afraid and don’t worry about what people might do.

It is a dilemma. Just to remind you, A dilemma is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable. In other words, you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. You’re between a rock and a hard place.  Following Jesus does put us in that position from time to time.  Sometimes we try to wrap ourselves in the warm, fuzzy blanket of Jesus’ love, so that we don’t have to deal with the thorns and the rocks.

We were talking about racist jokes the other day and how to deal with those.  Do you laugh?  walk away?  accuse the person of being a racist?  tell yourself you don’t mean any harm?  My wise daughter has a great technique that does not offend the other person, but instead makes them examine how the joke is racist and why the joke is supposed to be funny.  So…does anyone here know a joke that might be racist?  Would someone be brave enough to tell it? 

Now, here is the technique.  You simply say, “I don’t get it. Can  you explain it to me?”  At that point the person explains, and amazingly, in explaining the joke, it becomes clear that yes, that joke is insulting to the Child of God who is a member of a particular ethnic or cultural group.

What about the fourth-grader who sees a student hurting another student?  What happens when the fourth-grader tells the teacher or the playground supervisor?  It might be that nothing will happen or the naughty kid will have to sit in the corner….or the naughty kid will pick on the tattle tale.  In the grown-up world, we call those tattle-tales whistle blowers; whistle blowers don’t always get a bonus for pointing out that the company or business needs improvement: sometimes, they get fired.

Praise God, as often as not, following Jesus is a regular high.  I think of mission trips that my friends take to Jamaica and Haiti and how they can hardly wait to go back to hospitals and orphanages that would be condemned and closed in this country.  I think of people who go to nursing homes, not to check in, but to visit and to entertain the people who make their homes there.  Or what about the fourth-grader whose teacher sends a note home telling what a great thing she did for another student?

We take chances when we follow Jesus.

I’ve argued for a long time that the Church is the one place we count on for security.   We count on the church to stay the same. The rest of the world changes faster than we can blink.  But the church is the one place that stays the same.That’s why we call this room a sanctuary…we’re safe.  But like any criminal hiding in Gothic monster of a  cathedral, we eventually have to go outside. Jesus doesn’t sit here all day; neither do we.  We come here, but then we leave, following Jesus into the real world.

A word about the Church staying the same: it doesn’t stay the same.  Today we have new bulletins and a new order of service and a new hymn.  Sometimes we have visitors.  The people on the prayer list change. But you know what never changes, has never changed, will never change?  Jesus.  Jesus gave us some guidelines, and those have not changed.  OUr interpretations changes from time to time, when we put that warm fuzzy love blanket over our heads.  But, if you take the Bible seriously, it comes down to this:

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Amen.

The Bible Tells Me So????? Mark 9:2-10

Mark 9:2-10Contemporary English Version (CEV)

The True Glory of Jesus

Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him. They went up on a high mountain, where they could be alone. There in front of the disciples, Jesus was completely changed. And his clothes became much whiter than any bleach on earth could make them. Then Moses and Elijah were there talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Teacher, it is good for us to be here! Let us make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” But Peter and the others were terribly frightened, and he did not know what he was talking about.

The shadow of a cloud passed over and covered them. From the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, and I love him. Listen to what he says!” At once the disciples looked around, but they saw only Jesus.

As Jesus and his disciples were coming down the mountain, he told them not to say a word about what they had seen, until the Son of Man had been raised from death. 10 So they kept it to themselves. But they wondered what he meant by the words “raised from death.”

+++++++++++++++++

I had lunch with a friend yesterday.  She confided that she and her family had left their church and joined another one.  She was upset over one issue, one change in polity and she stated unequivocally that the Bible was very clear on that issue, that she was all about love the sinner, hate the sin.

On this day that we celebrate Jesus’ transfiguration, I wonder if Jesus is loving the sinner and hating the sin…or throwing The Sin in with all the other sins into the bottomless deep.  There was a lot about this conversation with my friend that bothered me, as it does anytime someone takes the position that certain behaviors are cause for dissension, condemnation, and abandonment. 

The first thing that set off red flags was the my friend’s statement that “the Bible is very clear.”  That was news to me.  If the Bible were very clear, I wouldn’t have to study scripture, read commentaries, write sermons or even deliver sermons.  If the Bible were very clear, you’d be able to teach me about it.  You wouldn’t need me up here trying to figure out what we’re supposed to soak up each week. The only thing the Bible is clear about, as far as I’m concerned, is that God doesn’t sort people out according to their behaviors, status, or even gender.  Likewise, God’s son, Jesus could not see differences, shades of any color, degrees of purity or sinfulness.  If there has ever been a level playing field, it is the field that Jesus plays on. 

It occurs to me that Jesus did not establish a church, little “c” or capital “C.”  Every generation after him has established the church, which, over the centuries has nitpicked its way through the Bible, declaring arbitrarily what is acceptable–not sin—and not acceptable–sin.

When someone says that a certain issue is the lynch pin on which the church turns, it seems to me they are missing the point of what Jesus taught. 

The Bible is hard to read.  And to read every chapter, every verse, is not in the realm of the everyday church-goer. The weird thing is that you can read a lot of the Bible and still miss some very important stuff.

A professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dr. Tim  Slemmons, has written a book that introduces into the Sunday readings a host of scripture selections that are not heard in our traditional three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. I have not tried to introduce a Year D into my study and preaching.  The pericopes in our three-year cycle are challenging enough, yet still familiar. Why would I burden myself with more difficult teachings?

If you read all the stories in the Bible, if you really think about the main characters, most of them committed some pretty heinous sins.  Cain killed Abel.  Abraham kicked his son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother out of the camp to die in the desert. Noah drank too much. Moses was a murderer.  Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave.  David committed adultery.  Ruth threw herself at Boaz to make him marry her.  The Bible is very clear that our spiritual ancestors were sinners of the first water.  Why God loved those sinners, kept them on the  payroll, let them continue as leaders is a mystery. The Bible is very clear, however, that God keeps on loving, helping, straightening his broken people, never withholding his love, even when he is totally disgusted with them. 

It seems to me if we can’t go to church with people who value different behaviors than we do, then we are focusing on judging, rather than loving.  My friend had no other issues with the church, just that one “sin du jour.”  Some how, bearing false witness, coveting one’s neighbors goods, blowing off the Sabbath, neglecting your parents, cheating on taxes—none of those was on her radar, not worth fighting over. For my friend, and thousands of Christians like her, none of those is offensive enough to make one separate oneself from the body of Christ…or a particular congregation.   Yes, there are ways to separate people. But you know what ticks me off?  None of these issues  has anything to do with doctrine, with the interpretation of 99.9999% of scripture, with carrying out the mission of the church, with the teachings of Jesus. 

My cynical point of view is that many church-goers could care less about such Scriptural arguments as whether Jesus knew his identity when he was twelve or thirty, the propriety of the Israelites settling in the Promised Land AFTER they killed all the inhabitants, whether Paul and Peter were theological enemies or not. It is so much easier to argue about something that doesn’t require any study of the Bible. (Quoting one verse from Leviticus is not studying the Bible.)

I should have stuck to trying to explain the Transfiguration.  But let me make some connection. 

The Transfiguration of Jesus as a biographical event was the turning point from preaching to prosecution.  From this point on, he was moving from Rabbi to Messiah.  For three years, he has been a new kind of teacher; he will end up as a new kind of Messiah. 

I know that Jesus forgives sins. I know…or my particular belief tells me that sin is real, that it hurts, that it is evil.  I know that I give into sin without thinking twice about it.  I don’t even try to be good unless it’s convenient.  To focus on behavior, which requires being a judge, rubs me wrong.   I would rather focus on the good that people do, rather than on the wrongs they do. 

That’s what Jesus did.  He forgave sin to free people to do good. He didn’t dwell on sin. We talked a little about that with the story of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law: when Jesus healed her, she was free to serve.  Likewise, when we are healed, we are free to serve as the hands and feet of Jesus.

I happen to know that none of you is perfect. I happen to know that everyone of you has sinned, does sin, will sin.  Yet, it has not stopped me from worshipping with you or serving with you.  What a goody-goody I am.

The Bible is both clear and contradictory. It says one thing and then another.  Peter and Paul are our greatest examples of the complications and confusion of trying to define Jesus’ intentions. Peter looks at Jesus as the man with whom he walked; Paul sees Jesus as the Christ who appeared to him in a vision.  Are we any different?  Don’t we each see Jesus differently?  I know that my ideas about Jesus have changed drastically since I was a Sunday School student.  Is the Bible clear to me?  When I want it to be.  When I am lazy.  When I don’t want to push myself to understand.  When I take the Bible seriously, I read, reread, study, explore, question, wrestle.

What is clear to me that Jesus didn’t dwell on the sin.  He moved on to wholeness, to service, to what each forgiven sinner could do. 

That is astounding!  Not only was Jesus transfigured; all of humanity was transfigured with the gifts of grace and mercy.  The biographical event is interesting. We could spend this time dissecting why Moses and Elijah were the prophets who appeared, we could wonder about the conversation among the three men. We could have explored where Peter got the idea to build three booths.  We could have compared and contrasted Jesus’ baptism with his mountaintop experience.  But I’m hung up on my own transfiguration. The conversation with my friend has set off a chain of intellectual events that make me yearn for a Church, capital “C” that spends its energy condemning hunger, neglect, abuse, not judging and sorting its community into good and bad.  Where does that church come from? It comes from my own transfiguration, my own climbing the mountain, my own consulting with Moses and Elijah and the prophets through intentional, consistent, disciplined Bible study, prayer and discussion.

My own transfiguration will move me from merely giving lip service to giving real service as the hands and feet of my Savior. 

Some other time I will argue about who Jesus was and is, what was God’s purpose for Jesus, whether the Trinity should actually be the Quadrinity. But for now, I’ve once again been thrown into my own transfiguration, trying to figure out where I go from here.

Jesus knew where he was going after his Transfiguration. From fame to  humility, from death to resurrection, he was transfigured into the greatest human being to ever walk the earth. My transfiguration is less stellar, is still going on, and will only be completed when I join him in everlasting glory.   

The one thing I need to know was buried in my heart and brain when I was a toddler. 

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the  Bible tells me so.  LIttle ones to him belong, they are weak, but he is strong. Yes. Jesus loves me.  Amen.

Healed to Serve Mark 1:29-39

29 As soon as Jesus left the meeting place with James and John, they went home with Simon and Andrew. 30 When they got there, Jesus was told that Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with fever. 31 Jesus went to her. He took hold of her hand and helped her up. The fever left her, and she served them a meal.

32 That evening after sunset, all who were sick or had demons in them were brought to Jesus. 33 In fact, the whole town gathered around the door of the house. 34 Jesus healed all kinds of terrible diseases and forced out a lot of demons. But the demons knew who he was, and he did not let them speak.

35 Very early the next morning, Jesus got up and went to a place where he could be alone and pray. 36 Simon and the others started looking for him. 37 And when they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you!”

38 Jesus replied, “We must go to the nearby towns, so that I can tell the good news to those people. This is why I have come.” 39 Then Jesus went to Jewish meeting places everywhere in Galilee, where he preached and forced out demons.

How sick do you  have to be before you’re too sick to fix a meal? Peter’s mother-in-law must have been pretty sick to not be able to serve Peter and Jesus and the rest of the crew.

For centuries, women have built their reputation through the hospitality they offered.  That included a clean house and good food and good service.  That was true for Peter’s mother-in-law, it was true for my mother-in-law. I pretend it’s not true for me, but I really do want to be respected for the way I entertain family and friends.  Things in the domesticity department haven’t changed very much in 2,000 years.

Imagine the times when you hosted the in-laws and the out-laws for Thanksgiving or Easter. How many of you women have been so exhausted by entertaining that you left the dishes in the sink for the next day?  How many of you have been so nervous during the preparation and serving of a big meal that you were grouchy during the entire gathering? Did any of you ever yell at your spouse or children during the hours before the guests arrived?  Or was it just me? 

Men have had different ways to prove their worth–muscular strength, story-telling ability, physical labor, financial success.  Women have had a broom and a spoon.  So, when Peter’s mother-in-law–let’s at least give her a name—I think her name is Abigail…when Abigail couldn’t get out of bed to show her excellent hospitality, she must have been very, very ill.

After all, it would have been an honor to host Jesus.  By not serving Jesus and the boys, she was risking her reputation as a hostess.

As it turned out, she had the right guest at the right moment.  Anybody but Jesus, and she would have stayed in bed. But Jesus stepped up, took her hand and presto! change-o! in no time at all she had food on the table.  Reputation saved!

Most of the commentaries I read about the passage, especially those written by women, saw the healing as opportunistic on Jesus’ part.  Would he have healed her if he’d already eaten?  What does Mark tell us? 31 Jesus went to her. He took hold of her hand and helped her up. The fever left her, and she served them a meal.

One verse from not even a glass of wine to a whole meal.

Let me point out a few things: she went straight from her sickbed to kitchen table in a matter of minutes.  I’ve never recovered from anything that quickly.  This reminds me so much of the winter that my mother was very ill.  I don’t know that anything was ever diagnosed, but she was essentially bed-ridden.  However, she began to regain some of her strength, and as a treat to us, she decided to fix us liver and onions.  We loved liver and onions; she hated it, but as mothers do, she wanted to show us a little love through a special meal.  She prepared that lovely meal for us. However, the smell and the sight of the liver caused her to relapse and she spent another three weeks in bed. My point is, most of us don’t have as quick and complete a recovery as Abigail did. My idea of a recovery is to be able to find a number in the phone book, think hard enough to put together a pizza order and make sure to have it delivered.

On the other hand, my hospitality has been tested–just this last week.  I prepare a meal for 60 every other Thursday.  No more; no less.  We start serving at 11:45.  At 11:15, one of the members walked in and told me we were having fifteen extra guests. Fortunately, we were having soup and sandwiches that day. Add a little water to the soup, cut the sandwiches in half, and nobody knew we didn’t have enough food for fifteen extra guests.  Let me point out, that I was NOT worried about a few people not getting fed; I was VERY worried about my reputation as a cook.

So, I empathize with Abigail jumping out of bed and fixing a big meal for HER fifteen extra guests.

Now, I’d like to go in another direction. I don’t think this passage is really about Martha Stewart or Betty Crocker.  It is about healing. 

32 That evening after sunset, all who were sick or had demons in them were brought to Jesus. 33 In fact, the whole town gathered around the door of the house. 34 Jesus healed all kinds of terrible diseases and forced out a lot of demons. But the demons knew who he was, and he did not let them speak.

This is where the real lesson of this passage lies.  Healing. 

What a nice story.  Jesus was such a great guy.  He healed a bunch of people…the whole town gathered around the house. Nice story.  Are we supposed to learn anything from Jesus doing all this healing? 

Who does not need healing?  Who is not plagued with demons?  Who does not wish that this ailment or the other would just disappear.  If Jesus dropped in today, who would not be in line for a cure, for some relief?

There are two approaches, both valid.  One, we ask Jesus for healing.  Prayer, prayers for healing, for ourselves, for others.  We do not see the instant results that are dramatically related in the gospels.  Sometimes we credit healing to doctors or medicines or lifestyle changes, sometimes to intervention from Jesus.

The other approach is that we offer healing.  Jesus authorized the disciples to heal, and by extension, we have, as Jesus’ 21st century disciples, inherited that command to heal.  Matthew 10:1 Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 

Full disclosure: I have never driven out any demons.  I have never eradicated any disease or sickness. 

But if I look at the path on which God has put me, I see some traces that may not look impressive next to what the original twelve did, but at least reflect some attempts on my part.  And you can say the same thing, I am sure. 

You have listened to a friend who had nowhere to turn.  You have brought cheer and food and flowers to a friend who is ill or lonely.  You have experienced this same kind of healing.  Think of how much better you have felt when someone has cried with you, when someone has held your hand in the dark moments, when someone has shared your pain, your grief.  That is healing.  Can you count the times you have been healed by the presence of a friend or family member? Count the times—don’t be modest–when you have given the gift of healing.

I admonish you to not take the power of healing for granted.  Accept that  power as a gift God has given you.  Use it intentionally.  It’s not just you being a good person. If you want to push the envelope, pray with someone. Push yourself a little. You may not think you know what words to say, that you know the right language or sentences.  But prayer is not a magic formula or incantation.  Don’t get Christianity mixed up with Harry Potter. Prayer is simply telling God what’s going on, what you think, what you want. 

Abigail was not healed because she was sick; she was healed so that she could serve. We do not receive healing so that we can sit watching the world go by.  We are healed, likewise to serve.

This scripture has inspired one more topic that I’d like to close with.

32 That evening after sunset, all who were sick or had demons in them were brought to Jesus. 33 In fact, the whole town gathered around the door of the house.

Imagine the whole town of Big Rock gathered at our door.  Imagine the the people of Spring Rock Township, of our neighbors in Scott County and Cedar County, gathering here, because we offer healing. 

My dream for our church is that someday we will have people lined up, out the door.  They will not be looking for a place to worship; they will not be handing us checks for paint and painters.  They will be asking for help.  And we will be able to give it. 

My vision for our church is based on four things.

ONE. First of all, I think back to the days, all the way back to medieval times when the church building and everything that went on inside it was of and for the community.  If that’s looking back with rose-colored glasses, then so be it.

TWO. My vision for the church is based on what cannot be provided by society, by individuals or by government. 

THREE. My vision is based on knowledgable leadership and compassion among us.

FOUR. My vision is based on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Our congregation has experienced the healing of our anxiety when the larger community helped us put on the new roof.  We have offered healing in our prayers to the members of our community. I see this place as a refuge, as a resource, for anyone who needs any kind of help. 

That sounds incredibly optimistic, if not downright crazy.  It sounds like too much work, time, money for a bunch of senior citizens.  But when I look at the example Jesus set for us, when I look at the strengths, the passion, the hopes of this congregation, the vision persists. 

Holy God, what do you think?  Amen.