Mark 9:42-50 |…Cut it Off… Tear it Out…

Happy Ash Wednesday and Lent, Beloved! I hope you find the space to worship somewhere today to hear the call to repentance, receive the ashes, and be blessed. Here’s today’s post…

One of the most famous parts of the Gospel of Matthew is the Sermon on the Mount. It is among the first things Jesus does in Matthew and takes up three full chapters (5, 6 & 7). Here in Mark, we get it in eight verses from chapter 9 and a couple more coming in 10. Because of Mark’s quick, short and crude writing style, we get a quick, short, and crude natalie-parham-LCn1zhTHU-g-unsplashteaching. The problem with that is that then we come away with a quick, short, and crude understanding of what Jesus is teaching here.

What Mark misses that I think is key to these teachings is what we find in Matthew, which is first of all a connection to the 10 commandments, and secondly, a getting to the heart and spirit of the commandments, not the letter of them. Mark misses that. The Jesus in Mark here seems suddenly concerned with mere moral behavior, which is ambiguous and undefined. It lacks depth. This could be good in that it forces us to look within ourselves to figure out how God might be working in and on us, and this is a very suitable idea for Ash Wednesday, but it’s also so crude in its telling that I find it a bit of a turnoff.

That being said, it’s important that it’s there. All along the Gospel of Mark has focused on Jesus moving from the Son of God who heals the sick, casts out demons, walks on water and calms storms to the Son of God who will be arrested, killed and ultimately will rise. The Gospel of Mark has been about the Kingdom tearing open and unleashing the Spirit of God onto the world. It has been about wholeness, healing, and restoration. In this sense, it’s been a big-picture book (as opposed to a big picture-book). These verses remind us of the importance of the small-picture as well. What’s going on within us matters. How we live our individual lives day-to-day matters. Holiness of heart, mind, and soul holiness” matters.

We must be about the big-picture work of recognizing Jesus as the “Son of God” who both performs miracles for the world and yet will also suffer for the world, but we also must be about the small-picture work of letting the spirit of Christ dwell within us to guide and steer our lives to holy living. Mark reminds us here that though what is going on around me in the world matters, so too does what is going in within.

Mark 9:38-41 | One of Us

So now the disciples are worried about some one else who cast out a demon in someone but is not “following us” . When we put this in context of the story in 9:14-29, it makes me wonder if the disciples were jealous. They have just failed in an exorcism, yet here is some one who is not even a follower out having success. Jesus is quick to shoot them down.

How often do we get jealous when some one who is not “one of us” has success in ministry when we struggle? Or, perhaps we could even apply to this or own business or organization. A spirit of criticism and judgment can come upon me when the church down the road seems to be succeeding while I’m struggling, so I “try to stop him because he is not following us”. I do so by criticizing them because they do not do it like I do. They didn’t check with me first. I find myself nitpicking fruitful ministry in my midst out of mere envy and jealousy- not all the time, but sometimes.

As a pastor and leader in the church, I have seen others have great success in their ministry where I have not, and it’s easy to slip into a spirit of criticism. This short, easy to miss story is a good reminder that we must be careful about our critique of others who are doing good work in the world. Criticism has its place, and that place is not out of a spirit of envy, jealousy or control. So what if they are not “one of us”? If our hearts are truly after Christ, it should not matter what kind of cup in which the drink of cold water comes or from where the cup comes. The cup and the cup bearer are not what matters. The water is what matters. Celebrate the drink of cold water.

In a world gripped in a spirit of criticism, may I learn to be slow to critique and quick to celebrate.

Mark 9:30-37 |Who Is The Greatest?

randy-jacob-A1HC8M5DCQc-unsplashI love that the disciples were “afraid to ask him” about his words regarding being betrayed, killed and rising from the dead. Based on some past behavior I’d say they have reason to be a little afraid. Words like “How much longer must I put up with you” (9:19)
are probably still ringing in their heads. So the disciples move on from their questions and move toward more pressing matters: who among them is Jesus’ favorite. They are pretty much embodying Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard from the great TV show, the Office arguing about whose title as more authority: “Assistant Regional Manager” or “Regional Director in Charge of Sales”. 

But here are the disciples, essentially behaving like children in that they know this is something they shouldn’t be wondering about, so they were silent when Jesus asked them what the were arguing about. You can almost here them going into pig latin about it: “Icksnay on the atestgrey, Peter…” But Jesus knows. And what does he do? He turns yet another cultural norm on its head: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. Then he picks up a child and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I said earlier that they were acting like children. Children were not held in high regard in those days. In fact, they were seen in a very low light, perhaps maybe just above a pet- loved and cared for, but not dignified. Jesus says that we “must be last” and then he equates himself with the last- with a child. And not only does he equate himself with a child, he puts God Almighty on this level as well: “whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus is once again turning this religious version of a kingdom of the world upside-down and inside-out.

A friend of mine once wisely said to me in a conversation “always be skeptical of those seeking higher office in the church”. I think this is a reflection of what Jesus is saying in this passage. If our level, our office or our position is what matters to us, then we are in trouble. It’s ok to get promoted, but when that promotion, title or office is what gives us our value and worth in this world, we have completely missed what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about. It’s about one who (according to Matthew) has been given all authority and lays it down in sacrificial serving love.

When we are seeking “higher office” we are walking on the thin ice of falling into being more worried about what I am ascending to rather than what I am laying myself down to. When we are trying to ascend, we can easily and naturally do so by trying to place others below us, and this is antithetical to the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel of Christ is about doing what Jesus did, which is taking the privilege and authority we have and using them not to ascend, but in laying ourselves down to empower others.  What if we all, myself included, were guided everyday by the thought, “how can I empower another today?” What might the world look like then?

Mark 9:14-29 |Ornery Jesus

Ok, lots of weird stuff going on here. First of all, what’s up with Jesus? “You faithless generation, how much longer must I put with you?” He simply does not exude the gentle, meek and mild Jesus we so often think of.  He seems impatient, frustrated and thomas-kelley-xVptEZzgVfo-unsplash-2unsympathetic. There are many potential reasons for this, I suppose. His question here, though, makes me wonder if he’s becoming increasingly aware of the suffering that is imminent, and this is feeding some anxiety and impatience. “How much longer” may not be mere rhetoric, but might be a more honest question about how far off the suffering is.

In any case, here we are with another exorcism, but perhaps more than any other, our modern minds can see that this has all the marks not of an evil spirit, but epilepsy. Though, as we’ve said, in the first century they wouldn’t know this, and the only conclusion for them would be some evil force having taken over this boy. The trick here is that if it is epilepsy, Jesus still heals it via a command against an evil spirit along with the call for faith from the father of the boy. And it’s in this that broad interpretations of this healing can lead us to all kinds of dangerous paths. If Jesus heals this boy’s epilepsy, why not all those people who live with it today? We just don’t know. There is no sufficient answer to this question, except to say that we must be careful when interpreting texts such as these.

But what is going on here is, once again, a display of Jesus’ power as compared to anyone else. The disciples are impotent to healing this boy, but Jesus simply commands the spirit to leave and the boy is healed. Jesus says that “this kind can only come out through prayer”, but Jesus doesn’t use prayer to God to do it. He simply says, “go” and the spirit goes. He doesn’t need to pray to God because he is God. He doesn’t need to access the power of God because he is the embodiment of the power God.

This is a reminder to us that if we are to do anything of God’s work, we can only do it by the power of the Spirit of God. We must actively tap into the presence of God so as to align ourselves with who God is and what God is up to in this world if we are to do anything in the way of being the Body of Christ for the world. Anything is possible, but only when we align ourselves with the active work of the Spirit in the world today. And that takes discipline.

It is in a sense, then, the essence of what it means to be a disciple. A disciple is one who does the ongoing work of aligning themselves with the active work of the Spirit in the world today, in so doing we collectively become the Body of Christ for the world. So be it with us today.

Mark 9:9-13 | Heading Down the Mountain

clay-banks-OOS6bEK6QrU-unsplash“As they were coming down the mountain…” This is a crucial verse. Mountain tops are synonymous with connections with God in the scriptures, the prime example being that it’s where Moses met with God and was given the 10 Commandments. And here the disciples have just had a mountain top experience, seeing the very messianic nature of Christ before their eyes. In 9:5, Peter says, “It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings”, which is to say, “let’s not go, let’s stay”.

Jesus doesn’t really address that directly, except that here in 9:9 it reads, “As they were coming down the mountain.” We can’t stay up on the mountain. We can’t stay in those safe places where we feel all warm and fuzzy with God. No, there is a world out there, filled with brokenness and darkness and because of which desperately needs healing and light.

So we head down the mountain into the world as an alternative kind of community to the brokenness and darkness of the world’s systems. Elijah is to prepare the way for this restoration, and John the Baptist becomes such an Elijah figure. And his fate was death. This speaks to just how high the stakes are in being this alternative community to the world’s systems. That’s the world into which Jesus and his disciples are heading down from the mountain. And as the Body of Christ for the world today, that’s the world into which we are called as well.

How will we be the embodiment of healing and light for the world around us? That is the essence of our call. Beloved, let us find and pray for the courage to head down the mountain together.

Mark 9:2-8 |Power and Light

I have always struggled with the story of the Transfiguration. First of all, I didn’t grow up in the church, but I did grow up in the 80s. Growing up as a boy in the 80s means you were obsessed with Star Wars. So when I first read this story, and every time since then, when I read about three glowing figures, all my mind can see is Obi-Wan-Kenobi, Yoda
and Anakin Skywalker appearing in ghostly form at the end of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps this is why this story is so strange for me. I find it weird, uncertain and out of place. Nevertheless, there it is and it is a huge story.

One of the running themes throughout Mark has been power: What has it, who doesn’t, and who thinks they have it? We are consistently seeing the power of God in Jesus through healings and the casting out of evil, but we also see the power of the world in people like Herod and the beheading of John the Baptist. Though we are six days later from the last few days’ readings, they are presumably still in Caesaria Philippi. Caesarea. That is, Caesar. That is, a city named for Caesar. And it is just prior to this passage that we heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1, emphasis added).

It’s in that context that we get what is known as “The Transfiguration”. It is called this because the text tells us that before them Jesus was “transfigured”. The Greek word is μεταμορφόω (metamorphoō, where we get our word “metamorphosis”). Yes, right there Jesus went from a little caterpillar to a beautiful little butterfly. Aw, how sweet. Except that it’s a beautiful little butterfly who is actually a real and present threat to the power of Rome. They are in Caesarea, where Jesus appears in God-like fashion with the two Hebrew figures associated with the end of all things (Moses and Elijah), and in it we get a flashback to Mark 1, with a voice saying “this is my Son, the Beloved…”, only this time it’s not “in whom I am well pleased”, but “listen to him.” You see, in Mark 1, it was a message to Jesus: “You are my son…” Here it’s a message to us: “This is my son…”

This is all about just how powerful Jesus is, and it’s a big reason why I believe that part of Mark’s target audience is one man: Caesar. And in that way, not one man, but one entity, which is, whoever sits on the thrones of political and worldly power. The message is “look out, Caesars, there’s more going on here than you know.”

Earlier, toward the end of Chapter 8, Jesus said those somewhat famous words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). The word for life there is not the word that generally means “living”. It’s ψυχή (psychē). It’s where we get our word “psyche”. It speaks to the whole of the self, the soul, the deepest parts of who we are.

The power of God in Christ is that while the Caesars of this world may have power over us in various forms, the good news is that they can never take our actual life, our psyche. God owns that. And the path to that “life” is by living in ways that we give it up for others, just as Jesus will do. We are made for the sake of one another. We lose ourselves when we forget that. And it is in this that Jesus saves us from ourselves. When we give ourselves to him, to his good news (the Gospel) we are saved from ourselves. That is we are saved from the prison of working to make sure that I’m ok and freed into the beautiful life-giving world of making sure that we’re all ok.

So, we listen to Jesus, and just as he shines “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach” (9:3), so too do we. Let’s go shine light into Caesar’s darkness.

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?