Good News for Today

Mark 6 New International Version (NIV)

6:7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

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How were the disciples able to strike out with no provisions? How were the able to make themselves guests in the homes of strangers?

Imagine taking off for the next town, Donahue, Oxford Junction, without any money, parking your car, knocking on a door, and telling the person who opens the door, “I have Good News for you.”  Maybe if you were driving the Publisher’s Clearing House van, you’d be welcomed. Otherwise, you would be met with suspicion.  

You might be asked for credentials.  What credentials do you have that prove you have Good News? A cross around your neck?  And what does that prove?  The Christian Kingdom is as divided as the political kingdom when it comes to reputation and fundamentals.

The disciples actually had some competition at the time. One of the philosophical movements of the time was Cynicism.  Cynics led a simple life free from all possessions.  We think of cynicism now as an attitude of suspicion. But the Cynics were an organized group who also shared their philosophy by traveling from town to town, preaching and begging for sustenance.  

That is the difference between Jesus’ disciples and the disciples of Cynicism.  They did not beg. They, instead, anticipated hospitality on the part of the homes they approached.  

It was not unreal for the disciples to expect hospitality from strangers.  Hospitality was one of the standards of the Jewish culture. Remember Abraham offering hospitality to three strangers—who turned out to be angels revealing that his wife was pregnant. (How would you like it if a stranger told you your wife was  pregnant?) 

Hospitality was not merely a question of good manners, but a moral institution that evolved from the harsh nomadic life of the Israelites. We’ve read many times about the injunction to welcome the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, “for you were strangers in a strange land. 

However, in giving instructions to the disciples, Jesus also knew they would encounter rejection, so he tells them 11 “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

Don’t waste your time.

So what does this passage have for us today?

No way, during our shelter-in-place situation, are we going to go knocking on doors of strangers, let alone friends and neighbors.  Do we still have a message that needs to be shared?  Absolutely!  What are our credentials? Our faith.  In what do we have faith?  A risen Savior who conquered sin and death for all humanity. 

The culturally acceptable view of Christians is people who do good works. People who give to charities.  People who open up food banks in their church basements.  People who open homeless shelters.  Do-gooders.  People who take sides with the oppressed.  People who work to improve the lives of those who are insecure. In the last two weeks the number of people who are unemployed has doubled, from 3.3 million to 6.6 million. If you would step into one of those homes now, you would meet a family who is food insecure, who is in danger of losing the one place where they are safe, a family whose health is in danger.  Would you be welcomed? And what could you offer?

Presidents as far back as Bush I have suggested that churches need to step up and do the work of the government in providing for people.  Ironically, churches have been declining in size since that time, able to do less but asked to do more. 

Maybe what we need to think about, beyond providing for physical needs, is to find more ways to provide for spiritual needs. Christinas have always been susceptible to claiming their good deeds as keys to the kingdom of God.  We need to remind ourselves that the door to the kingdom of God was opened, not by what we do, but by what God does.  God saves us. God destroyed the barrier between God and us through Jesus death and resurrection.  Jesus died in our place so that we might be free to live as the humans God created in God’s image—the original humans before the invasion of sin in all its manifestations. We are those reborn people.  That is the Good News we have to share.  

Think about how much comfort your spiritual life gives you.  Think about sharing that gift with others.  

There have been pandemics before.  The last one that we know about was the Spanish Influenza of 1918.  We are lucky to live in a time when we can communicate with each other, when we can afford to social distance, when we can avoid physical proximity to an invisible enemy.  We are lucky to live in a time when scientists are hurrying to create cures and vaccines.  

My point is, we have time and the ability to share the Good News.  Many of you have email or Facebook.  All of you have telephones. 

First of all, figure out what the Good News means to you.  Then think of ways to share your faith.  It can be a simple “I’m praying for you.” It can be bringing up something you read in the Bible or in a devotional book or in a sermon.  It can be sharing a hymn.  I like to post youtube performances of favorite hymns on my Facebook page.  Share your favorite Bible verse, the one the keeps you going in tough times. Don’t tell the person what they should believe; share what you believe.

Don’t assume that someone isn’t interested because they don’t attend church.  I’ve heard some statistics that more people are attending worship now, via live-streaming, than previously were attending worship in a physical space. I was working with some teachers earlier this year and one of the top topics students were interested in was spirituality.  

Some of you are old enough to remember farmers planting oats by scattering them over the ground. It was not unlike the Parable of the Sower, with seeds randomly flung across the soil.  Some were gobbled up by birds right way.  Some never sprouted. But by July 21, golden stalks of grain swayed in the breeze, ripe for the harvest.

So, as spring surrounds us, so does the work of spring—sowing seeds. The soil has been disced by the machines of fear and danger.  You can make something good grow out of these terrible times.  You are sent out, from the safety of your home, via invisible radio frequencies that were unknown when Jesus sent out the disciples.  Jesus is sending all of us out now, no purse needed, no extra coat. Shoot! We can sit barefoot in the security of our homes, spreading the Good News of salvation. Amen.

The Most Important Words

Mark 16 New International Version (NIV)

16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

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Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. 

On this Easter Sunday, 2020, how many of us are trembling and bewildered? We, too, are fleeing, running from something we can’t see until it manifests itself in illness and death. 

Today, on this conundrum of an Easter Sunday, the sanctuary is empty. Pastors share a cryptic joke about church attendance. They refer to some Christians as C & E Christians.  Christmas and Easter. The two times we can expect to see some missing faces among us.  So an empty sanctuary on Easter is a paradox, an anomaly.  An empty tomb, yes, but not an empty sanctuary.

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. 

Why the confusion?  They knew exactly what they would find when they arrived at the tomb.  A big rock.  A big rock blocking the entrance to the tomb. They knew exactly what was in that tomb: the broken, bloody body of their friend, Jesus.

They knew what to expect. What they did not expect was an angel.  What they did not expect was empty grave cloths. What they did not expect was   the Good News. He is risen!

Two months ago we knew exactly what we would find. Fully stocked grocery stores. Restaurants serving breakfast and lunch and supper.  Theaters showing movies.  Fans watching ball games. Two months ago we knew we’d enter our sanctuary and we knew which hymns we would be singing—together!  

Now we stand in a strange place, trying to adjust to new parameters for socializing, new ways to be with family and friends, creating new routines day by day. One thing remains: we have the Good News.  Jesus is risen!

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were left to wonder what had happened to their beloved friend. But in fact, they were told exactly what happened.  

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

He is risen! What did those words mean to the women?  He is risen!  Not in their wildest imaginations could they have expected Jesus to be alive.

He is risen!  What do those words mean to us?  To Mary and Mary and Salome, those words meant that they could again walk and talk and eat with Jesus.  It meant that life would continue as it had before.  

For us, those words have a much greater significance.  Those words confirm God’s great love for us. Those words absolve us of our own immorality. Those words free us from the guilt of hurting our loved ones.  Those words forgive us for our own selfishness.  Those words free us from mortality. Those words free us to look forward to our own resurrection when we leave this familiar life.  These words are the most important words in the Christian lexicon. He is risen!

God, our Creator, our Lover, our Protector, our Comforter, our Advocate walked among us to feel what we feel, to expereince in the most intimate way our joys and sorrows and temptations and triumphs. God, out of love and compassion, rescued us from the pain and humiliation, from the disappointments, from the fears of this life, to bring us into full life in the presence of God.

We are living in sad, fearful times. Every generation has had its watershed marker: Pearl Harbor.  9/11.   COVID-19. But the watershed marker of of all humanity, of all time is “He is risen!” 

 The women heard those words for the first time.  We have heard them so many times that it is old news to us. But this old news is Good News, the Best News that can be heard anywhere..

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

The Good News is hard to share.  Why is that?  We are so eager to share our own good news—of the birth of a baby, of the purchase of a new home, of the achievements of a child, of the recovery of a lost item, of healing and good fortune, that we call each other, we post on Facebook, we share in every way we can think of.  Why should the ultimate Good News be hard to share?

At Christmas time we disguise the Good News with fruitcake and presents and Christmas trees. At Easter, we disguise the Good News with colored eggs and candy and the Easter bunny.  In this season of fear and distrust, in this time of danger and vulnerability, we need the Good News in its plain, blunt truth: He is risen!  Life is eternal!  We are loved!  We are safe and saved!

We are saved from our own weakness, from our own fears, from any evil that afflicts us.We are saved for a purpose: to live as a new creation in the presence of God, Parent, Savior, Comforter. May we hear those words with new ears and share them with new passion: He is risen! He is risen indeed!  Amen.

Lead on, Lead on in Humility

2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. 2 Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person. 3 Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. 4 Care about them as much as you care about yourselves 5 and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought:
6 Christ was truly God.But he did not try to remain equal with God.7 Instead he gave up everything and became a slave,when he became like one of us.
8 Christ was humble.He obeyed Godand even died on a cross.9 Then God gave Christ the highest placeand honored his name above all others.
10 So at the name of Jesus everyone will bow down,those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.11 And to the glory of God the Fathereveryone will openly agree, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”

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What is the difference between a parade and a procession? That is the first thing we need to figure out when we try to reconstruct Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.
A parade is organized, planned, scheduled. A procession can be planned and scheduled. I remember being in junior choir and rehearsing walking in from the back of the church to the pews reserved for us in the front of the church. I have rehearsed bridal parties to process with dignity and order. On Sundays in large, fancy churches, elegantly dressed clergy process down the sanctuary aisle, preceded by one member who carries a large cross at the end of a pole. The cross precedes the clergy high above the crowd so all can see the symbol of our salvation. We call a line of cars driving from the funeral home to the cemetery a funeral procession.
So what is the difference? As the director of DeWitt’s Fourth of July parade, I can tell you that a parade is about showing off and celebrating. A procession is about getting from one place to another.
Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was not scheduled. It was not organized. Jesus was not showing off. If he had been, he’d have found something besides a donkey to ride into town. A chariot would have been the choice of some of his contemporaries. In fact, there was a procession entering from the opposite side of town, at the same time, a procession of Roman soldiers and dignitaries. People watching that were getting a bigger bang for their buck with all the imposing chariots and the beautiful horses draped in metal and leather. And the soldiers themselves would have been dressed uniformly, much better than Jesus and his followers.
So, if a procession has a beginning point and ending point, what were those points for Jesus. Exactly when did this procession start? On a morning a few days before Jesus execution? Or did it start earlier?
I propose that it started at Creation. Jesus, as part of the Trinity, as God the Son, was present at Creation. Jesus was present when sin came into the world. The minute sin became an option for humans, Jesus was on a mission. God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus. So that procession began before time. It continued, through eons, through the years of God’s people turning to God, turning from God, returning, rejecting, forgetting, returning.
And when the time was right, or when we humans were in so much hurt and chaos and misery, when we humans were so lost and careless and a danger to ourselves, Jesus arrived, not in a parade with angels riding on silver-white horses, but in the form of a tiny baby. He did not arrive int the middle of a governmental body but in the middle of a family, just like you and I did. That procession continued for thirty-three years.
For us, Palm Sunday is the beginning of a procession we call Holy Week. In a year without a pandemic, we would have waved palms. We would have bathed each others’s feet with tender grace and love. We would have stripped the altar to signify the heartbreaking death of the most wonderful Man ever born.
And we would be dying Easter Eggs. We would be checking out the best price on Easter lilies. We would be looking forward to seeing our children and grandchildren dressed in new spring outfits. We be looking forward to Aunt Helen’s Cranberry Salad and Aunt Anita’s Hor d’Oeuvres and Sue’s Gluten-free Green Beans and Sarah’s Scalloped Cabbage and Aunt Shirley’s Lemon Meringue Pie.
Easter is so special that we grew up creating our own procession to the dinner table on Easter Sunday.
But this procession that we observe today is not finished.
In today’s lesson, Paul tells us how to proceed, how to keep moving, how to continually follow Jesus.
We are in a procession, not a parade. We do not show off. We follow.
We are able to follow because our sins have been erased. There is no barrier to our participation except our own sinful will. Jesus has lifted that barrier so that we can love like Jesus loves.
2 Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God’s Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. 2 Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person. 3 Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. 4 Care about them as much as you care about yourselves 5 and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought:
Because we are freed from sin, we are freed to love each other. We are freed to be a part of the procession of Jesus Christ our Savior.
Live in harmony! What a beautiful concept! Harmony does not just happen. Living in harmony has to be intentional.
Harmony is something we long for. How do I know? Because everyone I know complains about the lack of harmony. If I walk into my office (Heiniee Jo’s and the Dixon Legion) and shout “Vote for Hilary!”, I’ll get the liturgical response, “Lock ‘er up!” And that’s four years after she lost. Who cares about Hilary now?
Our inability to reconcile over old news is a symptom of our fear. It is a symptom of the very thing against which Paul warns us. Don’t be jealous or proud. Jealousy makes us unstable; when we are unstable, we are afraid of losing our balance, our possessions, our safety. Pride makes us a threat to the neighbor who is jealous.
But be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. True humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by active concern for others.
This does not mean that you should think less of yourself. Paul does not mean that you lower your self-esteem. You are encouraged, instead, to raise the esteem of your neighbor in your own eyes.
Think about a time when you met a new classmate or a new neighbor and you didn’t think much of them. I remember the first time I met Mary. I was taking my kids for a walk and she and her kids were sitting on their front step. I went up and introduced myself; she looked lonely. Maybe I was the lonely one. I was used to being surrounded by students and teachers and I was now a stay-at-home Mom (for one marvelous year) and I was lonesome. Mary had on beat-up jeans and a sweatshirt with macaroni and cheese on the front. Her kids weren’t dressed any better. I thought, this is someone I should be nice to, not because I was nice, but because I felt sorry for her and because I was in the lofty position of being better off than her because my kids had tops that matched their shorts. Mary and I did become friends. And I learned that she also belonged to the country club and that she had a nursing degree and that she was a member of a socially prominent family in town. She raised herself in my biased esteem.
That is not what Paul has in mind. Paul wants us to always see everyone as deserving of our esteem, not because of their talents or their social connections or their personalities, but because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Have you noticed how nurses and doctors have raised in our esteem during this pandemic? And I’ve discovered that teachers are more appreciated in the eyes of parents. Home schooling has taken on a whole new meaning for many parents. It’s not easy. One meme I saw sums it up pretty well: Home schooling is going well. “Two students expelled and one teacher fired for drinking on the job.” And who would ever have expected grocery store cashiers to be glorified? Suddenly, those we take for granted are now the people on whom we depend.
In our broken world, we often learn the hard way who is important and who is not. In Jesus’ world, in the world God created, everyone is important. Is this pandemic teaching us the lesson Paul was trying to teach to the Philippians?
Scholars believe the last six verses of today’s lesson are words of an ancient hymn. We learn from hymns as much as we learn from scripture, not because they are a separate form of writing, but because they are Scripture in a different form, a form that allows us to easily memorize and to express with more joy and energy than plain reading allows.
6 Christ was truly God.But he did not try to remain equal with God.7 Instead he gave up everything and became a slave,when he became like one of us.
He became like one of us. So let us, as we continue this procession, become like Him. Through His death and resurrection, we are freed to follow Him with humility, with joy, with anticipation. We are released from jealousy and pride to care for each other, for all the others.
I just happened to meet Mary when I was out on a walk on a nice day. I’ve also met people, like my grandson pro tem, Anthony and his friends, who many see as a stereotype of a poor black kid headed for a life in prison. I’ve met people like you, who truly love the opportunity to worship and to serve. I’ve met people who make ten times as much money as I do and I know people who can’t make the rent and don’t have forty rolls of toilet paper stacked under the cellar stairs. I count among my friends people who hate the people I vote for and I count those same candidates among my friends.
I still stumble into sin—I can wrap myself in the chains of disapproval and judgement at the mere mention of an event or a person. But Jesus takes care of that. Jesus forgives me. Jesus pins a note to my back—”this one is forgiven”—and lets me join the procession once more.
So, dear friends, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, as we process through Holy Week, as we look forward to a different way to celebrate Easter, let us walk in humility, not because we are ashamed, not because we want to show off our Jesus-side, not because we want to hide, but because we are walking with Jesus, not admiring Him from afar, but walking right next to him, emulating what he does.
As you walk, invite the bystanders, the onlookers to join in the procession. Every procession has a destination. This procession has one destination: 10 So at the name of Jesus everyone will bow down, those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. 11 And to the glory of God the Father everyone will openly agree, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
This is our destination on this Palm Sunday, during this Holy Week, on every Sunday, on every day God has given us. We are headed toward the day when we will all bow down, with all the saints, declaring “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Amen.