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Mark 8:27-9:1 | Three Posts in One!

In the daily reading this passage is divided into three separate readings, and while there is something to say about those three section individually, they really are part of one ravi-pinisetti-NCq2PGvLWKM-unsplashwhole. So today’s blog post will take us through to next Tuesday, so don’t expect any new
posts on Monday and Tuesday.

This is where the Gospel of Mark takes a big turn. After healing the man from Bethsaida, Jesus asks his disciples, “who do people say that I am”, and then follows it up with “who do you say that I am”. This is the pivotal point in Mark. Mark begins in 1:1 with the declaration that Jesus is “the Son of God”. Since then we’ve seen Jesus heal, cast out demons, walk on water, feed thousands and even affect the weather. He is exhibiting god-like qualities. He is doing the kinds of things that a god does. So it’s maybe natural to wonder what people are thinking. When Peter says, “you are the Messiah”, he gets the question right, but then Jesus does something strange. He tells Peter not to tell anyone, which would indicate that Peter is correct, but then in verse 31 it says that Jesus began to teach them about the “Son of Man”. All along Jesus has been the “Son of God”, but he suddenly starts referring to himself as the “Son of Man” (which he has done a couple times before in Mark, but much more explicitly here).

The Son of Man is a complex phrase that refers back Daniel 7:13 and his prophecy about the Messiah, so when we read the “Son of Man” in the scriptures, we are reading Messianic language, which Peter would have known and which would have affirmed Peter’s answer. But what Jesus says about the Messiah is not at all what Peter, or anyone, would imagine about the Messiah: He “must undergo great suffering…”

This is the turn in Mark. All along Jesus has been living into this “Son of God” identity, but here we learn what the “Son of God” and “Son of Man” really does. Walking on water, healing, feeding the masses, calming storms, that’s all fine and dandy. That’s all good and powerful, but what really marks what God is like is the laying down of one’s life for his friends. Yes God is all powerful, capable of marveling us with mighty deeds, but what makes God truly God is God’s capacity to love and serve to the fullest degree. What makes God truly God is God’s unchanging, unending, sacrificial, steadfast love. This is the “Son of God” that we see throughout all of Mark but begins to become realized from here through the the Gospel’s end. We see the God which Paul sang about in Philippians 2:6-8

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross…

Mark 8:22-26 | He Took Him By the Hand

This is obviously not the first or only healing Jesus does in the Book of Mark. It’s happened all over the place. But if you ask me, this one feels different. In the rapid pace of Mark’s narrative, not only does Mark slow down here (only five verses, but there’s a bhuvanesh-gupta-yH66cRzpNzQ-unsplashkind of focus here many other stories lack), but Jesus does too. Jesus seems more present to this man than perhaps anyone throughout the seven plus chapters we’ve read so far.

First of all the text says that the people brought this man to Jesus just so that he would touch him, because, as past healing episodes indicate, that’s all that needs to happen. But Jesus does more than that. First it says that he “he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village”. Not only does Jesus touch him, he grabs his hand and goes for a walk. All the woman who was bleeding needed to do was touch the hem of his garment and she was healed, so certainly this walk should suffice for this man, and it could have. But Jesus chooses to really hone in on him.

He’s already gone beyond what the people asked by taking his hand and walking with him out of the village, but then he take it a step further: He puts some saliva on his eyes, lays his hand on his head and takes the time and care to say, “can you see anything?” This is strange in comparison to other healings. Normally Jesus simply says, “be healed” or “your faith has made you well” and moves on. But here, you can almost see Jesus looking him in the eye and gently asking “can you see anything?” He is present to him like few I recall reading in Mark. The man indicates that he sort of can see, but not really. So Jesus takes it even one more step further and places his hands on his eyes again, and then the he sees. And then in an effort to make sure he tells no one, as Jesus is want to do, He says, “don’t even go into the village”.

This story seems unnecessary. Mark could have easily skipped it and moved on to the next story, one which we will look at tomorrow and which is key to this gospel. But he doesn’t. Why doesn’t he? Why does Mark include this story of Jesus slowing down and giving this man a kind of attention that few, if any, have been given?

Here’s maybe why: Just prior to this story, the Pharisees are demanding a sign. It seems apparent that Jesus is done with signs. He’s healed, he’s cast out demons, he’s walked on water, he’s fed thousands, he’s calmed storms. He’s done with the signs. But he’s not done healing. He’s not done making broken things whole, making hurting things heal, and making dead and dying things come to life. So he quietly, slowly, patiently and empathetically takes this man out of the village and gives him the Gospel- that is, the good news of restoration. He’s done with the crowds, with the buzz, with the excitement. It’s not about that. It’s about restoration.

In a world where everything and everybody seems to be starving for “buzz”, may we, may I, remember this story. It’s not about buzz. It’s about restoration- authentic, present, empathetic restoration. Not restoration for the betterment of my organization or my life, but for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of God’s dream for the world. In a world starving for clicks, hits, likes, shares, and retweets, may I find the strength to strive for authentic restoration first and to see the buzz for what it is… just something buzzing by- here for a moment and then gone…

Mark 8:14-21 |Do You Not Yet Understand?

Thinking_Face_Emoji-Emoji-Island“Do you not yet understand?” No, Jesus, no I do not. I’ll be honest. I’m totally guessing on this one, so let’s break this down…

In verses 11-13 we have the Pharisees demanding a sign as a way of trapping or testing Jesus’ validity, and this coming right on the heels of the feeding of the 4,000. Then he and the 12 head off “to the other side” (they seem to spend a lot of time going “to the other side”). Having only one loaf of bread, Jesus (seemingly out of the blue) says, “watch out- beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod” (verse 16). The disciples wonder if he’s saying this because they have no bread. Jesus’ responds to this with “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand?” This response is yet another indication that all this business about bread and feeding people (presumably including the feeding of the 4,000) is not about bread at all. There is something deeper going on.

All throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been performing physically miraculous acts, primarily in the arena of healing and feeding. Yet at the same time he’s saying that it’s not about “signs” or “bread”. It’s about the provision of God. Five loaves turned into 12 baskets. Seven loaves turned into seven baskets. Some how, some way, God gives us what we need. Some how, some way, God is with us and fills us- if not physically, God fills us spiritually. God’s grace defies math, God’s grace defies logic, God’s grace defies reason, God’s grace defies understanding. God’s grace is lavishly, abundantly, and even wastefully poured out onto the world, even to those “on the other side”. It’s not about bread. It’s not about signs. It’s not about measurable goals, matrixes, and quantifiable fruit. It’s about the wonderfully mysterious, unpredictable and incomprehensible grace of God.

“Do you not yet understand?” I have no idea if I get it or not, Jesus. So maybe I’ll stop trying and just rest in your grace.

Mark 8:1-13 | How Can One Feed These People?

Between the Gospels there seem to be many stories about feeding thousands. They all read fairly similarly, and it’s easy to sort of mash them all together into one story. This is okay, I suppose. There is a similar point to them all, and here in Mark we get a second mass feeding story, which is very similar to the first. I can’t get past this question that matt-donders-boz4mBOeR2U-unsplashJesus asks: “How many loaves do you have?” As churches across the nation struggle, this is our question.

You see, in many ways the Church today is in the desert struggling to find food. Finances are a struggle across the board and most churches are not sure how we’re going to do what we are called to do. Here Jesus and his disciples are in the desert and Jesus feels a call to feed the people. But they have little to no resources. His disciples are doing what most churches today are doing which is focusing on what we don’t have: “How can one feed theses people with bread here in the desert” (8:4). To put it another way, “how can we feed the people when we have nothing?” Jesus turns this around to focus on what they do have: “How many loaves do you have?” (8:5). This question is loaded. It does two very important things:

1) It does not deny the scarcity of resources. If Jesus was in denial of their scarcity he would have simply said, “feed them”. And then they probably would have carelessly started to feed the people and quickly run out. But he doesn’t. By asking them how many loaves they have, you can almost see Jesus’ brain starting to work: The only way the people will be fed is if we are real about what our resources are and use them creatively and wisely. So he’s aware and real about their scarcity.

2) But the other very (and more) important thing he does is believe that whatever it is they have is enough to do what they feel called to do. They don’t have enough to perhaps do all that they want to do, but he believes that they have enough to do what they’re called to do. Seven loaves? Okay, let’s make seven loaves feed the people. There is certainly a miracle in this story, but I also wonder if buried within it is a kind of creative strategic sense that we as the Church need to adopt. When I hear Jesus asking the question, “how many loaves do you have” I can almost see him starting to strategize creatively how he’s going to fulfill the call the feed the people with whatever it is they have. I don’t know that this feeding just magically happened. It took creativity, strategy and trust all working together.

Do we trust God and our God given creativity enough to believe that we can fulfill our call with whatever provisions we have in this desert? It may not be enough to do all that we want to do, but do we trust that it is enough to do what we’re called to do? And in all of its many and varied forms, what the Church is called to do is make sure that no one goes away empty, hungry, and thereby discarded and overlooked. What are the hungers of the people in our communities? And what do we have to feed them?

Mark 7:31-37 |He Does Everything Well

sergey-pesterev-QFJpwek20g4-unsplash“He has done everything well.” He has healed paralytics. He has given hearing to the deaf . He has given sight to the blind. He has cast out that which is evil. He has spoken the unspeakable to power. He has calmed storms. He has fed thousands. He has liberated those are oppressed. He has revealed beauty within the “unclean”. He has exposed the dust, rust and dirt within the “holy” and “clean”. He has called those who have passed over. He has opened up God’s kingdom on earth just as it is in heaven.

And this is what he’s done in only seven chapters of one of the gospels. He’s still working, here and now. He’s still working in you and in me. In those who have honestly, authentically and vulnerably opened themselves to him he does great things. From those who have fearfully, pridefully, and stubbornly closed themselves to him, he has dusted the sand off his feet and walked away. He does all things well. He is trustworthy. He is good. He has come to breathe life, not suffocate it. He has come to tear open, not lock down. He has come to liberate, not limit. Do we trust him? Do we want to be a part of him and and his work? Laying ourselves down honestly, authentically and vulnerably is a terrifying thing to do, but Jesus does all things well. It’s scary to be sure, but oh so good. Trust him. For as we read in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe “he’s not a tame lion… but he is good.”

Mark 7:24-30 | No More Bread Crumbs

robert-bye-xHUZuSwVJg4-unsplashSo Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for being more faithful to their traditions than to God, and reveals that it is what is coming out of their hearts , what is coming out from the inside, that defiles, not the other way around. This theme of “clean/unclean” is thick through the Book of Mark and it kind of comes to a head here. Immediately following this encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus takes his words and lives them out. He heads to the “region of Tyre”. This is a gentile region, an “out of Israel region”. From the religious leaders’ perspective, this is one of those outside things that defiles Israel. But that’s where Jesus goes. He’s living out his words that it’s not what’s on the outside that defiles, but what’s on the inside.

As soon as he gets there he has this strange encounter with a “greek” woman. Her daughter had an “unclean spirit” and needed to be freed of it. And Jesus’ response seems to contradict everything he had just said to the Pharisees previously: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This seems harsh, out of character, and inconsistent with what Jesus has been doing and saying, and it is. He’s saying (and we can see this more clearly if we match it up with this story in Matthew 15) that his work is for Israel, not for the “dogs”. Suddenly he seems to be saying that the outsiders don’t even count. But the woman presses in and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She calls out the injustice.  And Jesus quickly relents.

Two things:

1) If Jesus really meant what he said about the gentiles being the dogs in this scenario, he wouldn’t give in so easily. There must be something more going on with his statement. I wonder if what he’s doing is seeing if she thinks she belongs. Like he’s thinking, “let me give her what she’s expecting, and see how she responds.” We don’t know what Jesus would’ve done if she had given in an walked away, but I imagine he still might’ve liberated her daughter from that unclean spirit. Which leads to point number 2….

2) She doesn’t relent. She presses into Jesus, even challenges him. She will not back down on what is right and good. That’s the kind of faith that God is looking for here. She is living out the pure heart for God that Jesus was previously admonishing the Pharisees for not having in 7:1-23. She is simply laying her whole self out there saying, “even if I am a dog, can I not lick up the crumbs?” But she is not a dog. She’s a human.

This story is not about settling for bread crumbs. God doesn’t want that. God is a God of abundance. This is a story about standing up to injustice. This is a story about demanding  human rights. Not even Jesus I immune to being challenged when justice is withheld. May we all capture the spirit of this Syrophonecian woman, stand up to power when Justice is denied and delayed, and demand what is right and good: Which is something far more than mere bread crumbs.

Mark 7:1-23 | Far Away Hearts

“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are from me”. Mark 7:1-23 is packed with all kinds of hard words and challenges from Jesus. But in the end, what it’s about is the heart. God wants our hearts, not mere actions, and this is not new in Jesus, as evidenced by Jesus quoting Isaiah above. This does not mean that God is not caleb-woods-VZILDYoqn_U-unsplashconcerned with our actions. God is. But more so what God is concerned with is the heart in which act.

More specifically, God is not interested in empty ritual. Jesus is calling out a problem that is universally human, and alive and well today as it was in Jesus’ day, and as it was in Isaiah’s day. And that is when our spiritual practices cross over from ways in which we interact with God to ways in which we hide from God. Whether it’s a hand cleansing ritual in 1st century Israel or the sacrament of Holy Communion today, these practices are designed to connect us to the Spirit of God, but when they get reduced down to a mere act that I do in order to feel righteous or holy or obedient, they actually do the opposite of connecting us to God: They enable us to hide from God.

It’s like this: The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a space in which we are to take in the very presence of God. It should be a space that confronts us, that pierces into our souls, showers us with the good news of our belovedness, while at the same time opening us to spaces where God wants to refine us. It is a space in which we step up and out (literally, as we come forward) into God’s presence. But over time, if I am not careful, it can become so mechanical and comfortable that it’s actually a space in which I  hide from God- a space in which I put on the appearance of a spiritual practice, but I’m actually missing God completely.

This is what Isaiah was confronting, and what Jesus is confronting here. In any and all rituals and practices, God wants our hearts- that is, God wants the core of who we are- laid bare and open. The rituals referenced in this passage today were not bad. It was the way they were being used by some that was bad. They were being used to do exactly what Adam and Eve did upon partaking in the forbidden fruit and realizing that they were exposed before God: They hid.

Above all else, God simply does not want us to hide. Where and how is it that you’re hiding? And do you have the courage to trust God enough to come out of your hiding, and let God work in you? It can be scary space, but it’s safe and it is good.

Mark 6:45-56 |…They Did Not Understand

This passage is a nice example of how quickly Mark moves. The first part we may recognize from Matthew 14 where it is not only Jesus who walks on water, but he calls Peter to do so as well. Mark almost uses this famous story as a mere transition to get to more healing- to get from one place to another, both physically and narratively. It feels much more practical in Mark than it does in Matthew. In Mark Jesus simply sees they’re in trouble, still tries to avoid them, but when he see’s they’re in trouble, he can’t. So he gets into the boat with them, calms the storm, and in their lack of understanding about the loaves and about this, Mark says, “but their hearts were hardened”. That’s it. It’s very technical and uninspiring, if you ask me.

Then we get to more healing stories, but even that feels a bit fly over: It’s merely, “all who touched him were healed”. What I find interesting about putting these two stories in the same day’s reading is the dichotomy between Jesus’ disciples and the crowds. The disciples, who are living, eating and sleeping with Jesus have hardened hearts about all that Jesus is doing. They’re unsure, they don’t get it, they’re bordering on confusion. But the crowds “recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was” (6:54-55). The crowds believe. The crowds see him for who he is without seeking to understand the nuances of who he is. All they know is that Jesus is one who feeds the hungry, heals the sick, liberates the possessed and oppressed.

That said, the crowds don’t have the responsibility of following him. So before I say what I want to below, I also want to give the disciples a little benefit of the doubt. They’re trying. But the trick of being in that position is the risk we run of doing what Wordsworth warned us about in a whole other context: “We murder to dissect.” That is, photo-1551076805-e1869033e561when we seek to understand something entirely, we often chop it to pieces to the degree that we destroy its heart and soul.

With that said, I wonder sometimes if we get too wrapped up in dissecting Jesus as though he’s a subject on a lab table for us to cut open and study and understand, rather than laying ourselves down on an operating table as a patient for the surgeon to press into and heal and transform. The operating table is scary, but it’s good. Very good. And so is the surgeon.

Mark 6:30-44 | What Do You Have?

This is one of those stories that shows up in all four Gospels, and they all seem to hit something different to me. As I read Mark’s version, I wonder if the loaves and fishes really isn’t about the loaves and fishes. Often we read about Jesus retreating by himself reuben-hustler-YTV2zNt8Zqg-unsplashand then others interrupting him. But here in Mark, just prior to this great miracle, we have Jesus making an invitation: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” Wow.

Remember the context: Just prior to this, Jesus has sent his disciples out to do what he does: Go to the people, call them to return, heal the sick, and cast out evil. Then they all hear about the morbid, politically and personally motivated assassination of John the Baptist. They have been giving themselves to Christ’s mission and now are in grief, and they are tired. How sweet must those words be: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” This may be the kindest, gentlest Jesus we’ve seen in Mark.

Of course, it didn’t last long. The crowds show up, and they are hungry. Jesus cannot turn them away, but the disciples see no means by which they can feed them. And Jesus says these piercing words, that to me may be some of those most important for the many struggling mainline churches out there today like mine: “You give them something to eat… How many fish do you have?”

This story is not merely about a miracle of loaves and fishes. It’s about the people God getting rightly aligned to do God’s work. It begins with “come away to a deserted place…” And from there, when we look at the work before us to feed the people, both literally and metaphorically, our task is not to look at what we don’t have, but to look at what we do have: “How many fish do you have” (the operative word maybe being “do” as opposed to “don’t”).

The work is hard, but it is, oh, so good and right and beautiful. But it takes focus. It takes the discipline to trust that the work is God’s work ultimately, not our own, and so we “come away” from it not only to get rest, but to remind ourselves that the work is God’s and not ours. It’s a way of saying, “God doesn’t need me”. There’s a burden attached when someone “needs” us. To “come away” not only restores us, but it says “God doesn’t need me, but God does want me.” It’s as though Jesus is saying to his disciples, “Look, I don’t need you along with me in this work- I can do it without you. But I’d rather do it with you.”

When we get aligned to that, then we stop looking at what we lack, and we begin to see just what we have that Jesus believes is within us. We begin to see how many fish we do have to offer. And so, how many fish do you have? Now go and offer them and see what Christ will do with them.

Mark 6:14-29 | A Dark Turn

ethan-hoover-eIVJAkj1uCs-unsplashWe have taken A dark, dark turn. Things have been moving along, and the pressure has been building, but this story here in Mark 6:14ff serves as a sober reminder of where this rapidly paced narrative is heading. If you recall, John the Baptist was arrested early in the story (Mark 1:14). Since then, if you’re like me, you’ve forgotten about him entirely. Remember, he was Jesus’ cousin, he baptized Jesus, and he had quite a following of disciples himself. In this sense he was more than an amicable contemporary of Jesus. In a very real way he was a partner, both doing the work alongside Jesus and paving the way for Jesus.

Mark takes time to outline the death of John the Baptist here, and there are two things about that which are important. One, whenever Mark takes time to tell a story, we need to pay attention, because he is otherwise rushing through everything. His gospel is a fast-track to the cross, so when he slows down, it matters. Two, this the first time in Mark’s gospel that a story is told that doesn’t center around the work and life of Christ. Jesus almost disappears for a moment. If Mark is in such a hurry to get to the cross, why does he spend this much time on a story about a whole other character?

There could be many answers to that question, but I think this is definitely in the mix: Mark is reminding us that this is not merely about religion. This story is political. People often say that politics and religion shouldn’t mix, and that we shouldn’t talk about politics. I understand that. But the problem is this stuff is necessarily political. This kind of work has consequences in all corners of our worlds, and this story reminds us that the political realm is one of them.

If John is seen as a threat to the political powers that be to the point of having his head on a platter as birthday present, just what might be in store for Jesus? It is as if Mark is saying to us and to Jesus’ disciples, “Look out. This is where all this is trending.” Turning kingdoms inside out and upside down is perhaps some of the best work that can be done in this world, but it comes at a cost- a very high cost, and if you look through this world’s history, you will find that there are very few exceptions. We just came off of celebrating Are we sure we want to be disciples of Jesus? Are we sure we want to do what the master does?