180513 – Now

Yr B ~ Easter 7 ~ 1 John 5:9-13

My task today is to take a theological concept that’s probably embedded in most of our memory’s and help us see that the way it’s talked about most of the time is not just unhelpful but actually theologically incorrect and contrary to how Jesus saw the world and led his followers to be. I’ve taken a run at this before but it is a persistent challenge that needs talking about because our culture is so steeped in the error. And yes, I’m calling it an error.now

Here we go:
Christianity is not about getting to heaven when you die. It’s about a new way of living now.
Christianity is not a hope for everything being better in the future. It’s about awakening to God’s kingdom that already surrounds us and working to reveal it now.
Christianity is not about what can be someday. It’s about what ought to be now, and what our role is in helping make that happen.
Christianity is not about eternal life. It’s about eternal life!!! (that’ll make more sense in a few minutes – I hope!)

We are at the end of the liturgical season called Easter. Remember, it’s not just a single Sunday, it’s a whole season. Easter as a season is about the core theological truth and necessity of dying and rising. It’s about the end of what was and the beginning of what can be. It’s about turning from a former way and embracing a new way. It’s about old life being renewed and replaced by a new kind of life.

But what does that new life look like?  What is its character? What makes the new life better than what was?
In a word, it is eternal.

1 John 5:11 And this is what God has testified: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in Jesus.

This is one of those examples where how you interpret a word or two makes all the difference in the world.
What has God given us? Eternal life!
Ok, so what does that mean? What do you mean when you say the words “eternal life”? We use those words all the time. Everybody knows what eternal life means, right?

Unfortunately, it is far too often used incorrectly. Let’s look at each word.

Eternal does not mean the afterlife. Eternal certainly includes the afterlife – in fact, it literally means age-long, unending, everlasting time – but that means a kind of time that has no beginning either! Not just no ending, but no beginning. It’s a timeless time. To be eternal absolutely does NOT mean that when you die you start living forever in a new way. Well, ok, I guess it does in a way but that’s such a tiny fraction of the concept.

Eternal time stands in direct opposition to ordinary, brief, workaday, temporary, limited, fleeting, counting the days until you retire (or the hours until the sermon’s over) time. We’ve talked before about the difference between the Greek words chronos which is measureable clock time and kairos which is a special holy moment in time. Now this is another kind of time – it’s called aiónios which is about the quality or character of the time. It’s eternal time which has no beginning and no end, and in which every moment is connected to every other, and in which God’s Presence is sensed and savoured more fully because it functions in deeper ways than limited clock time is experienced.

Maybe this will help: in English we say “love” but in Greek they have several different words for different aspects of love. Agape is the spiritual, God-centred love that is far deeper and higher than any of the other aspects of love.
So, aiónios (or eternal) is to time as agape is to love – God-centred, holy, on a whole other plane of experience.

Now let’s add in the other word, because eternal is usually paired with the word life. The Greek word here is zoe which means life as in vitality, animation and not just the biological sense of having breath and a heartbeat – it’s not the opposite of death. Zoe means the life we live in both physical and spiritual ways! So again, it’s about a spiritual quality to life.

Put the two words together and what is eternal life? It’s a quality of existence that involves your whole being and spirit, and has no beginning and no end, and is marked by an all-encompassing sense of being God-centred and God-immersed.

Another way to say all this is to call it the kingdom of God.
What does life lived in the kingdom of God feel like?
What character does life lived in the kingdom of God have?
It has the character and feel of eternal life. Eternal life and the kingdom of God are absolutely synonymous.

1 John 5:11 And this is what God has testified: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in Jesus. read on

180506 – This

Yr B ~ Easter 6 ~ 1 John 5:1-6

This! If you’re into social media at all you’ve probably encountered “This!” It indicates importance and emphasis and authority! Often it appears with an arrow pointing either at another post or comment. It’s saying “Hey! Look at this! This is really important. This is, IMHO (in my humble opinion) worth reading again. This comment really ‘gets’ it. This says it better than I could. Out of all the other noise here ‘This’ is the best insight. This is truth! This is what it’s all about!”this

A few years ago we would’ve said “Word!” or “Truth!” In the book of psalms they said “This!” by using the word “Selah!”
Selah! Truth! Word!

So, now that I’ve set that all up, what is the “This!” in this scripture passage? Well, in just 6 verses we actually get 4 “This”-es. And I think “This” will help us in tackling this passage which is generally accepted as being really tricky, and dense, and circular, and confusing, and hard to understand. So let’s see what “This” is all about! Hopefully, “This” helps.

1 John 5:1-2 Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
By this we know
that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey God’s commandments.

To paraphrase – Everyone who trusts in Jesus and makes some sort of confession of faith like “I believe” or “Jesus is Lord” has been born of God, is a child of God.

And how do we know whether we love those children of God? By THIS – by loving God and keeping God’s commandments!

Ok, which commandments?
There’s the big 10 that Moses did with the tablets and the mountain thing, there’s the 613 laws of Torah, and there’s our big 3 that we find in Mark 12 and John 13 – to love God, love people, and love one another.
That’s what we mean around here whenever we say love, love, love (like we will in the offering prayer today).

And who are God’s children again? Those who’ve made an affirmation of faith of some kind.

In other words, us.
Look around. You’re surrounded by children of God – by people who have claimed the love of God and claimed God as parent, or father, or even Holy Mystery.

And THIS is how we know we love these people according to verse 2 – by loving God and keeping the commandments.
In other words, by love, love, love.

Then the writer of John says it again, just to make sure we don’t miss it. In addition to loving God’s children we learn how to love God too.
1 John 5:3

For the love of God is this, that we obey God’s commandments. And God’s commandments are not burdensome.

THIS! To love God is to obey God’s commandment to love, love, love.

Is that burdensome?
No, it’s not burdensome, but it’s not easy either.

What’s the measure of knowing if you love God or not?
That you love others and love one another!

But be careful here. You may have encountered people who think that Christianity’s all about being a do-gooder. It’s so much more than that. read on

180422 – Shepherd and Sheep

Yr B ~ Easter 4 ~ John 10:11-18

The majority of this morning’s sermon is borrowed from a lovely extended illustration called “Led From Behind” by Methodist minister Rev. Laura Mendenhall. (edited)shepherd-sheep

“Tom is a real shepherd. Tom herds sheep in West Texas and has a dog named Shep and everyday Tom and Shep are with the sheep. Every day. Tom doesn’t take time off from his sheep to go out to dinner or to a movie. I don’t think Tom even leaves the sheep to go to church.

Maybe he holds his own services for the sheep. I don’t know. What I do know is that he stays with his sheep. Tom’s father bought these sheep years ago and Tom treats them like family, seeming to enjoy their company. Once somebody told Tom that God created sheep in order to make chickens look smart, but Tom didn’t laugh. While he knows that sheep aren’t smart enough for a game of fetch or a frisbee toss; nevertheless, sheep can generally figure out where food and water are. That’s pretty smart.

In order to encourage the sheep not to overgraze but to move on to other pastures, Tom cannot go charging out in front of the sheep shouting orders to them, “Here, sheep, sheep, sheep, come this way. Follow me, sheep, turn here.” If Tom were to try to direct his sheep in this way, they’d probably just turn and go in the opposite direction. So, Tom doesn’t usually shout to his sheep about anything.

Sometimes Tom talks out loud to himself and the sheep probably overhear. Sometimes he may speak to them in the same way we speak to babies never really expecting them to understand. And sometimes he sings to them because he likes to sing and because the sheep don’t seem to be disturbed by his singing, but I’ve never heard Tom raise his voice to his sheep, never heard him be angry or disparaging about his sheep. And so, they follow him, not because of his authoritative directions, but because they trust his voice.

While his sheep probably couldn’t distinguish Tom’s face from that of any other shepherd, that doesn’t mean that they’re stupid. The truth is they seldom see Tom’s face for Tom is not usually out in front of them but rather behind them. They know Tom’s voice and are reassured as he sings along behind them–encouraging those who are straggling, assisting those who are injured or sick, directing those who can’t find food, helping the unfortunate, the weak, the lame.

I doubt seriously, however, that the sheep are aware of how Tom works to keep them from danger. Tom transforms the wilderness into security and safety for them, guiding them around danger to green grass and cool water. Tom will not permit the wolves and coyotes of the hill country to be a threat to his sheep. He defends them from predators. Tom is always on the lookout because sheep are such vulnerable creatures.

Of course, on occasion when Tom has been ill or had a family emergency, he’s had to hire someone to look after the sheep. But hired hands want time off and at the slightest danger hired hands will abandon the sheep and run. A shepherd, on the other hand, will put his own life at risk in order to protect his sheep. Tom has, in fact, sustained wounds from wild animals he’s had to fight off his sheep.

Tom loves his sheep. That’s why, day after day, over rocks and crevices, through shadows and storms, Tom is with the sheep. They know his voice and Tom leads them, though most of the time it’s from behind.

The Bible tells us that the Lord is our Shepherd, which makes me wonder–is Jesus like Tom? Does Jesus seldom get a haircut and bathe only once a week? I don’t know about that.

I hope it means that Jesus refuses to laugh when the angels tell jokes about how stupid we are.
I hope it means that Jesus doesn’t wring his hands over us but is content to be with us even though we regularly do stupid things.
I know that like a shepherd Jesus picks us up when we fall down, mends our broken spirits, feeds our famished lives, supports us when we are limping along, sings to comfort our spirits.

Of course, if we look for Jesus to be out in front of us showing us the way, we may be frustrated at not being able to see him. It may be, however, that Jesus is leading us from behind, the way Tom leads the sheep. Maybe it’s because Jesus is a shepherd that he doesn’t shout directions to us. Jesus knows what we can do and wants to encourage us to go ahead and act on our good judgment. Sometimes we may wish Jesus would be out in front of us giving us explicit signals.

We wish Jesus would be that direct with us.
We’d rather not have to think for ourselves.
We’d prefer to have Jesus to make decisions for us so that we might have someone to blame when things go wrong.
But most of the time, Jesus is leading from behind, picking us up when we get into trouble, encouraging us to go ahead and trust what we know – just like a shepherd.

read on

180401 – April Fools

Yr B ~ Easter Sunday ~ Mark 16:1-8

It only happens 3 or 4 times in a century. The last time it happened was in 1956. The next time it’s going to happen is just 11 years from now in 2029, and then 11 years after that in 2040. And I won’t but some of the kids here today will likely see it after that in 2108. It’s too bad that it doesn’t happen more often because the tie-in is so perfect! And the sermon practically writes itself. Surely you’ve figured out what I’m talking about – Easter Sunday falling on April Fool’s Day.april-fools

Now, I know you’re expecting me to preach about the resurrection of Jesus today but because this is such a serious and significant topic, and because the calendar unfortunately happened to have Easter Sunday fall on April 1st, there was a decision made by the church to honour the sanctity and solemnity of the day and cancel preaching about the resurrection this year.
“April Fool!!!!”

No one knows exactly when it started, but over time April 1st emerged as a day for playing practical jokes on people and for spreading hoaxes. There have been some really funny ones over the years, like the harvesting of spaghetti trees in 1957, the invention of smell-o-vision in 1965, the discovery of flying penguins in 2008, and one of my favourites, in 2014 Kings College, Cambridge (famous for its boys choirs) put out a video detailing their decision to discontinue the use of boy sopranos and instead use grown men who have inhaled helium gas!

The spirit of the day is to play these harmless and fun (never hurtful or mean) pranks on people and when they fall for the joke you shout out “April Fool!” Maybe you had some experience with that this morning before you got here! Someone gets surprised and everyone has a great laugh.

Here’s another one. The bulletin says my sermon title is Surprise Symphony. I was going to use Haydn’s Symphony No.94 which features in the slow and quiet second movement a super-loud full orchestra chord that crashes through out of nowhere and then it immediately goes back to quiet. [play clip]. Then I was going to talk about how the gospels are like a symphony – which literally means harmonious sound – that tell a beautiful story and move us. But then I decided it would be more fun to do April Fool’s jokes so I changed the title. Surprise!!!

So I’m thinking about the reason we’re here this morning.
It’s Easter Sunday – and no matter what the church says I’m gonna preach about the resurrection – kinda!
Mark’s gospel tells the story this way: (Mark 16:1-8)

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “April Fools!”

Ok, obviously he didn’t – but he may as well have! Jesus risen is like the ultimate April Fools prank.
What’s missing from the text is the part about the disciple who got to the tomb even earlier than the women and climbed up to the top of the rock that was covering the tomb…and very carefully placed on its edge a big bucket of cold water – so just in case Jesus really did rise from the dead when he came out he’d get soaked!
Hilarious! (Ok, just in case, I just made that up!)

No, the mysterious young man in the tomb – maybe an angel, who knows – didn’t say April Fools – he said:

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[laughing] Isn’t that great?! It’s another April Fool’s joke!
Did you catch it?
That’s the end of Mark’s gospel.
That’s it. Nothing more.

If your bible has verses beyond Mark 16:8 it should also have a footnote saying that those verses were added many, many years later. Folks didn’t like Mark’s ending so they tried to change it! Mark’s gospel ends exactly like I just said it does. The messenger says Jesus has been raised and isn’t here – instead he’s going back to Galilee, and so should you.
And that’s it.

So did you catch the April Fool’s joke Mark has played on us?
Jesus isn’t there.
The women don’t see Jesus, they just hear that he’s risen. And then it says they fled the tomb and didn’t say anything.
And that’s the end of the story.
No one sees or experiences the risen Christ at the end of Mark’s gospel.
No one!

We’re expecting a holy visitation.
We’re expecting Jesus to appear with angelic choirs floating overhead.
We’re expecting for him to comfort the women.
We’re expecting to hear about how he appears to the disciples and inspires them to carry on.
April Fool! There’s none of that in Mark.

Instead, Mark tells you if you want to see Jesus you have to go back to Galilee.
That means going back to the beginning – as in back to the beginning of the gospel – and read it again!
Because, my friends, that’s how you see Jesus – he’s revealed in the telling of the story.
He’s been hiding in plain sight the whole time.
He is risen indeed!
He’s here right now! See?

Mark 16:8 says the women hurriedly left the tomb because “terror and amazement had seized them”. Terror and amazement sound like a bad thing – but the actual Greek words are tromos and ekstasis – that means trembling and ecstasy.
Trembling and ecstasy!
Because they thought Jesus was dead and gone, but now they know he’s still with them!
Because once they were blind, but now they could see!
Even though they couldn’t see Jesus they could “see” Jesus – see?

He’s not dead and buried.
He’s alive. He’s present.
And if you can’t see him then go back to Galilee – go back to the beginning of the story – and read it all again and again until you can see!

I love that Mark’s gospel ends this way.
It just stops.
It totally leaves us hanging. Waiting. Wondering.
It’s like an unfinished symphony! (See how I was going to tie that whole symphony thing together?!)
Mark doesn’t give us answers – he sends us on a journey – a journey that we have to make on our own.

You can’t have faith handed to you. You can’t just show up at church and receive all the answers and go on your merry way. Instead, you get an invitation to join the journey and encouragement to keep travelling.
Easter comes at the end of each gospel but isn’t the end of the story – it’s the beginning!
It’s the beginning of everything.
It’s the beginning of a journey of rebirth, of new life.

Whatever may be going on in your life the promise of Easter is that a new season of abundant life awaits.
It doesn’t mean a magic wand is going to pop out and make your troubles disappear – but it does promise that darkness is not the final word – light and love are.
Death doesn’t have the final say – life does.

And when it seems like Jesus isn’t around, like maybe he’s trapped behind some giant rock somewhere, we remember that he didn’t stay there.
He was raised up.
Just like we can be raised up from our tombs.
Right here, right now. That’s the promise of Easter!

Another reason I love Mark’s unfinished symphony is that it leaves us with more questions than answers.
And frankly, that’s refreshing compared to what often happens at Easter with people getting into arguments about this detail or that in the resurrection story, and whether it was a literal event or a metaphorical one, and whether Jesus’ physical body was raised or his spiritual body, and whether there are 4267 angels on the head of a pin or 4268.

Mark avoids all that by leaving us guessing.
Where’s Jesus?
Go back to the start and see for yourself! He is risen – but you still have to learn to see him.

April Fool’s Day is a day for practical jokes and hoaxes. Interesting!
Was the resurrection of Jesus an elaborate hoax?
Did the disciples just make up the story?
Is Easter a scam?

Absolutely not!
And I don’t say that because I have some incontrovertible proof about the resurrection – all I have is logic.
And logic says that if you’re going to create an elaborate hoax that you wouldn’t formulate it in such a way that you and your fellow hoaxers would be persecuted, beaten, jailed, and killed for championing it.
You make a hoax that turns you into a millionaire, not a martyr.

That those confused and bewildered duh-sciples were transformed into passionate evangelizers who started a movement that eventually overtook the Roman Empire is all the proof I need that the resurrection really happened!

And nowadays, in today’s culture of cynicism and scepticism, society doesn’t think that Easter is a hoax, but they do think we’re fools for trusting in the Jesus story and trying to live the Jesus way – and since Easter usually happens in April I guess we’re all April fools.
I’m ok with that.
I get it. It must seem entirely foolish to them.

I can’t deny that I have given my life to something that cannot be scientifically proven,
that I’m moved to trembling and ecstasy by a Presence that I can’t put into words,
and that I pray to someone

that only those who can ‘see’ can see. Of course they can’t see.
They haven’t made the journey back to Galilee yet.
There you will see him, just as he told you!



180325 – Cross Trek: Temerity

Lent 6 – Palm Sunday – John 12:12-16

Even though each Gospel’s version of the story differs slightly in its details, the general thrust of what we call the Palm Sunday entry of Jesus into Jerusalem marking the beginning of his last week on earth is the same.
Jesus causes a fuss as he makes a dramatic and theatrical entrance into the city. People crowd around. There is singing and cheering. There is palm waving, or branch waving, or cloak laying (doesn’t really matter).
And there is Jesus on a donkey, tapping into an ancient Jewish writing about how a new king will arrive.
However it gets packaged in the story-telling, there is one fundamental thing we ought to notice and learn from this – Jesus has chutzpah!

That’s my sermon title today. I used a fancy word for it – temerity – because it fit with all my other key words during Lent – cruciformity, integrity, receptivity, and tenacity. So temerity is the perfect word, but chutzpah has more…chutzpah!!!

Temerity means boldness, rashness, brazen nerve, shameless audacity, gall, cheek, impudence, impertinence, and probably some more colourful colloquialisms you might know. But it’s all summed up nicely in the Yiddish word chutzpah.
The word originally had mostly negative connotations and was applied to people who had crossed the line of common decency and should’ve known better but didn’t seem to care. “Oy vay! What chutzpah!”
Over time the word was also applied admiringly by people who would look at someone’s brazen action and lament that they themselves didn’t have the guts to act in that manner. “That guy’s got chutzpah!”

Part of it depends on where you’re sitting. One group’s enemy is another group’s champion.
So let’s take a minute and look at the groups involved in this little Palm Sunday theatre piece and ponder how they might perceive this scene.

Imagine you’re in the crowd.
You’ve made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival – a festival with decidedly political undertones about the oppressed Jewish people being released from Pharaoh’s captivity.
What are you thinking about all this? I’d imagine there was a mixture of expectation and curiosity. John 12:12 says, “The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.”

They’d heard about him, and that he was coming. That’s not on CNN or in the newspaper – that’s all word of mouth. The city is buzzing about this Jesus guy.
Wouldn’t you be curious?
Wouldn’t you be wondering if he was really the new Messiah who would deliver the people from Roman oppression? Wouldn’t your Hosannas – which means “save us now”, or “deliver us now” – take on a whole new level of meaning if you thought it was really possible?
Wouldn’t you be thinking, “Wow, that dude’s got a lot of chutzpah!”? And he’d better deliver after getting all their hopes up, right?

Imagine you’re one of Jesus’ disciples.
You’ve been journeying with him and learning from him and trying to figure him out for maybe a few years by this point.
What are you thinking about all this?
Pride, energy, validation, hope, excitement.
Wouldn’t you be thinking “All these people are looking at my guy as the one! We’re right. We’re going to change the world. Nothing’s going to stop us now. I wish I had as much chutzpah as Jesus!”

Imagine you’re a Roman soldier – standing guard at the city gate, watching this throng of people excitedly flock to this man and his disciples, waving palms and cheering.
What are you thinking about all this?
Wouldn’t you be wary of these trouble-makers, incredulous of their foolishness, ready to act if the crowd gets too rowdy?

Imagine you’re among the Jewish religious leaders.
You’ve managed a careful balance and an uneasy agreement with the Romans that you can still celebrate Passover but you can’t afford even the slightest hint of rebellion or the entire festival might be cancelled.
What are you thinking about all this?
Wouldn’t you be thinking, “He’s going to start a riot. He’s going to get us all killed. Who does he think he is? How dare he? That fool has too much chutzpah for his own good – or ours!”

Imagine you are Jesus.
What are you thinking about all this?
Foliage waving, people singing your praises, everyone looking at you. Calling you king!
The way John’s gospel tells the story it’s like Jesus was so moved by the crowd’s reaction to him that he quickly found a donkey on the spur of the moment and got on and rode it in. It’s like he was thinking “Wow, look at this response! They’re listening. Maybe they’re ready to hear about the kingdom of God and not just about the usual expectations of a messiah figure? I’ll hop on this donkey and use the symbolism to help make my point that this is entirely another kind of kingdom that we’re talking about.”

Well, actually that makes Jesus sound a bit naïve – and I don’t think that was the case at all.
He knew exactly the underlying messages he was sending.
He knew he was poking the bear.
He knew what was bound to happen next.

Of course, we all know what happens next in the story too.
The thing about audacity and boldness is that it almost always pushes someone’s buttons. Maybe those buttons absolutely need pushing, but there are going to be consequences.
Jesus riding on a donkey, purposely playing on the known symbolism from their scriptures of that indicating a king’s entrance, is being intentionally provocative.
There’s already a king, and he’s not going to be too happy about having a rival.
And the Romans who keep him on the throne as their puppet are not going to take kindly to some rabble-rouser coming in and claiming to be a new king.
How dare he?! The temerity! That dude’s got a lot of chutzpah!

Do you?

read on

180318 – Cross Trek: Tenacity

Yr B – Lent 5 – John 12:24-26

No tengo responsibilidades en absoluto!

Such was my El Salvador mantra. In case you didn’t know, Cynthia and I have just returned from a week long mission awareness trip to El Salvador. It’s called mission awareness because the focus of the trip is to learn about the partnership our church (specifically the Bay of Quinte Conference Region) has with Iglesia Bautista Emmanuel – a small church in San Salvador (the capital) that has an impressive missional outreach ministry with several ministries they run including a school, a youth arts centre, and a few communities in the mountains where they build houses and communities.

Our group included 15 youth and 22 adults. I won’t go into too many details about the trip because in a few weeks when I’m away at Conference annual meeting the UCW will be inviting a very special guest speaker in to talk about the trip – Cynthia!

As I said, one of the best parts of the trip for me was my mantra:
No tengo responsibilidades en absoluto!

That’s Spanish for “I have no responsibilities whatsoever!” – because for once I wasn’t in charge!
I wasn’t a leader.
It was so great to just get on and off the bus and not fuss or worry, and to just savour the experiences.
I was just a learner and a participant!

No tengo responsibilidades en absoluto!
A little slice of heaven!

Having never done anything like this before, and moving way outside our comfort zone, off we went.

The point of this mission awareness trip was not necessarily to make us all into passionate El Salvadoran champions. The point was to become aware of the positive difference that partnering in mission can make. The point was to learn from those partners and grow deeper in faith.

The point was to help us become aware of these things so that when a potential mission opportunity presents itself – like what happened to our leader, our Conference Executive Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Bill Smith, in Ottawa 32 years ago – that we’ll be more ready to respond with open minds and open hearts and be more inclined to take the leap and engage.

One single Salvadoran man who had escaped the brutal civil war that was going on there at the time, wandered into Bill’s Ottawa church called Emmanuel United. The Salvadoran attended Iglesia Bautista Emmanuel back home, so he recognized the word. He went in and was warmly welcomed. That started an amazing partnership that has touched hundreds and hundreds of lives.

Soon other Ottawa Salvadorans joined the man and in no time there were around a hundred of them at Bill’s church. In time they asked him to go and visit their homeland and see the violence and hardship they had fled, because without doing so he couldn’t really understand them.

He went, and the partnership between the United Church and them, and between Bill and their pastor Miguel Thomas Castro, was inaugurated. Our trip was part of the fruit of that missional partnership.

The purpose of this trip was not primarily to get us to fall in love with El Salvador and her people (although that was a happy by-product). The purpose was to transform us and open us to our own potential as mission partners in whatever context we find ourselves.

The need is profound. read on

180304 – Cross Trek: Receptivity

Yr B ~ Lent 3 ~ John 3:16-21

I am a sinner and so are you.
I know that’s not your typical United Church kind of statement, and I know that I’ve just risked a number of you instantly tuning me out, but I hope you’ll stay with me and hear me out. I’m probably not saying what you might think I’m saying. And the reason for that is we have inherited a theological set of understandings that are sometimes not very helpful – and a lot of the talk about sin belongs in that category.

Man walking on a Bible towards a cross

Man walking on a Bible towards a cross

But it’s a really important theological concept – and if we don’t wrestle with the idea of sin and understand it well, then today’s scripture reading – including arguably the most famous and beloved verse in the New Testament – tends to get interpreted far too superficially.
So we’re gonna wrestle! It is Lent, after all!

I talk about sin from time to time and when I do I explain that the literal meaning of the word is “to miss the mark” or “to fall short of the goal”. The clearest imagery comes from archery – or throwing a ball a long distance. In both cases you have to kind of aim higher than your goal in order to reach it – and if you don’t aim high enough you fall short or miss the mark (and you sometimes still miss even when you do aim high).

I also don’t think it’s very helpful to talk about “sins” as in individual actions. Instead, it’s better to talk about sin as a state of being or an orientation in which our repeated and habitual missing of the mark makes us feel separated from God. Why? Because we understand that God sets the mark – which is holiness – and we know we’re not there enough of the time, and so we feel separated.
It’s not true, of course. We’re never separated from God’s presence – no matter what we may do or not do – but it feels like we are when we miss the mark.

Now, we know that we’re essentially good people. And we know that we all try our best most of the time to hit the mark. That’s great!
But no one is perfect.
Like it says in Romans 3:23 “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
All have fallen short. All.
Raise your hand if you’ve never fallen short?
Jesus said something similar in John 8:7 “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Nobody threw a stone. All have fallen short.

And that’s why it’s so bizarre that Christianity has seemed to make throwing stones its most prominent pastime. Or at least its most vocal. Despite the clear, unambiguous, and frequent teaching of Jesus far too many Christians spend far too much time pointing their fingers at someone else’s supposed sinfulness.
“They” are living contrary to God’s will. “They” are not following scripture. “They”, “them”, “those people”.
Not me, them.

Perhaps you’ll remember Jesus saying in Matthew 7:3 “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” And two verses later he uses the ugly word hypocrite.

Indeed, these are the biggest accusations levelled against Christianity – that it’s full of hypocrites and judgmental people. Of course, we love to point our fingers at all those “other” types of Christians who do this, at those “other” churches – but we don’t!
But that’s just proving the point! We’re looking for their specks and ignoring our logs.

Can you tell we’re in the season of Lent?!

Having said all that, while our tradition may usually studiously avoid any talk of sin there’s another wing of Christianity that focuses intently on sinfulness and seems to revel in the notion that we are all vile worms deserving of eternal damnation.

So it seems like you can’t win. Either you’re pointing at yourself for judgment or you’re pointing at someone else for judgment, and either way it’s not very helpful. One choice is to abandon any talk of sin at all and only ever focus on our blessedness. But that’s kind of like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, in fine United Church tradition I’m going to strive to find some middle ground! read on

180225 – Cross Trek: Integrity

Yr B ~ Lent 2 ~ John 2:13-22

Scripture passages like today’s are sometimes tricky because the story is really familiar for those of us who’ve been hanging around churches for a long time but the details really can change the way we might interpret it. In Mark, Matthew, and Luke Jesus enters Jerusalem at the start of what we now call Holy Week. The week that he is crucified in. The end of his physical ministry and life.

Man walking on a Bible towards a cross

Man walking on a Bible towards a cross

But the timeline in the gospel of John is dramatically different. In John, Jesus goes into Jerusalem, enters the temple, causes a major scene by wrecking the joint, and has an argument with the Jewish leaders. And this all happens in chapter 2 – at the very beginning of his ministry. Not the end.

Our standard interpretive take is that when Jesus clears the Temple of the money-changers it’s the last straw and leads directly to his arrest and execution. Indeed, if someone came in here some Sunday and started flipping over tables and chasing people around with a whip it would more than likely provoke an arrest! (hopefully not an execution!)

But in John it happens at the beginning. Very weird.
And that time change is really significant for us in shaping our interpretation. So it’s good that we might know the story – but don’t assume the story is precisely how you think you know it!

Let’s review the details.
John’s gospel starts with a cosmic nativity about how Jesus is the Word, then John the Baptizer does his thing, then John more or less sends his disciples to be Jesus’ disciples, then they all attend a wedding in Cana and Jesus does his water into wine thing as his first act of public ministry.
And then the very next thing that happens is the clearing of the Temple. It really is at the very beginning of his ministry according to John’s gospel.

Jesus enters the Temple, sees the marketplace, makes a whip, drives out the people, flips tables, pours coins on the floor, and singles out the dove sellers for some reason and tells them to stop turning his Father’s house into a marketplace (literally the word means emporium).

Well, as you can imagine, this made quite an impression on Jesus’ brand new disciples! Remember, they’d only been with him a couple of days according to John’s timeline! And here he is, first time in the Temple with them, the holiest place on earth for Jewish people, and Jesus goes ballistic! Can you imagine?!

But it’s their reaction that is utterly fascinating!
John 2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

Where was that written? It’s from Psalm 69:9. It’s a psalm about how living your faith with your whole heart and soul can bring challenges, and pushback, and insults, and mocking, and trouble.
If you live your faith out loud people will notice, and they might be put off if they don’t understand.

Zeal is a great word!
Zeal means eagerness, enthusiasm, passion.
The Hebrew word from the psalm literally means ‘hot enough to boil’.
Isn’t that awesome? To be so passionate that you’re boiling over with enthusiasm – and enthusiasm, by the way, means to be filled with God.

His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So does that mean that Jesus’ zeal for God’s Temple will eat him up? – or might it mean that it will so impassion him that his spirituality and worship and prayer fills his every moment and empowers him to act justly? The latter sounds about right to me.

Then comes the pushback. read on

180218 – Cross Trek: Cruciformity

Yr B ~ Lent 1 ~ Mark 8:34-38

Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Today we get one of those parts. Today’s reading means exactly what it appears to mean. Our challenge is what to do with it, because it’s pretty heavy duty stuff.

Such is the typical content of the season of Lent.
Are you a fan? Do you enjoy Lent? Or do you endure it? Or do you avoid it?
I asked the Monday morning scripture discussion group – called the Porch – to describe what they liked about Lent. Two words that emerged were raw and intense. Lent certainly can be both of those things – if you let it.

Lent is the season during which we prepare for Holy Week. Jesus turns his eyes toward Jerusalem and so do we. We know that a cross awaits him. We know that it will not be pleasant or pretty. It will definitely be raw and intense. So why do we put ourselves through this?

The short answer is that if we don’t we will not only never understand Jesus and his teaching but we will get entirely the wrong idea about what this whole church and faith thing is supposed to be about. I’m going to work very hard today to dispel one of those things that I think we tend to get wrong – the cross. I hope you will find it helpful, but it’ll push your buttons!

Even if you never darken the door of a church there’s one aspect of Lent that’s pretty popular in the world – it’s the idea of giving something up for a while. I say something like this every year, because it really is that important. Giving something up is fine, but it kind of misses the point if that’s all you do.

And it really misses the point if you go around whining or bragging about how much you’re suffering for having ‘sacrificed so much’. If you do that you’re saying “Hey everybody, look at me, aren’t I a great person because I’m a bit uncomfortable!?” Does that sound like Jesus to you? If you’re going to give something up the point is to then trade that time for doing something spiritual – like praying, or helping people. Give up watching an hour of TV or internet and instead use that time to focus on God.

So where’d this whole idea of giving something up come from? Well, one place is today’s scripture reading. But I’m going to suggest that we can find deeper things in it.
Here’s the verse – it’s Mark 8:34 where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Denying yourself doesn’t mean to forego eating chocolate, and it certainly doesn’t mean to demean yourself by calling yourself a vile worm. To deny yourself means to be less self-centred. It means to not always put your own desires first. It means opening your heart to God in prayer and saying “not my will but THY will be done” and really meaning it.
It’s not even a verse about sacrifice really, it’s a verse about surrender. About trust. About letting go and letting God. You can’t approach that by just giving something up for Lent. It’s more about giving yourself over for Lent.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
What does Jesus mean with this provocative phrase “take up their cross and follow me”?
Well, it depends on which audience you consider. There are three.

The first audience is the crowd of people on the road with Jesus and his disciples. At this point they had no idea that he would be crucified. He may very well have had an inkling about it because he was poking at both the religious and the political establishment and when you poke hard enough they tend to fight back, and it rarely ends well for the poker. So while Jesus may have suspected there was a cross in his future, those travelling with him had no concept of Easter Sunday yet. read on

180211 – Dazzling Darkness

Yr B ~ Transfiguration ~ Mark 9:2-9

[A monologue in the voice of Simon-Peter]

Dear Diary. What a week it’s been! Six days ago I was walking along with Jesus and the gang and out of nowhere he asked what people were saying about him. We answered that people were saying all sorts of things, like calling him a prophet, or even Elijah himself! Then Jesus asked who we thought he was. I should’ve kept my big mouth shut! But I couldn’t help myself. I blurted out, “You are the Messiah!” He said not to tell anyone about him. I thought that was a bit weird, I mean, wasn’t that the whole reason we were out travelling from place to place preaching about the kingdom? So people could know who Jesus was?dazz;ing-darkness

Well, I guess it’s more complicated than that, because then Jesus started talking about how people who preach the kingdom and know that they’re one with God end up suffering, and being rejected, especially by the religious establishment, and that they’d even go so far as to kill him to shut him up! And then he said something cryptic about being raised up again.

Well, that was just too much. I mean, I’d just called him the Messiah! You don’t reject a Messiah and make them suffer and kill them! So I took him aside and told him so! I know, I know – again I should’ve kept my mouth shut! He didn’t like that at all! He said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That hurt, but I guess he’s right. I wish I understood what divine things looked like! So I started praying that I could understand better, that I could see.

Well, six days later, today, I sure got to see something all right! It happened early this morning. James and John and I went up the mountain together with Jesus to pray. Jesus loves getting away from everything and really focusing on prayer! And I love going with him. I’ve done it many times, but today was really different!

Today as we were all praying something happened to him that I still don’t know how to really describe. His clothes seemed to become pure white – whiter than I’ve ever seen before. And it was like Jesus was…I know this sounds weird…but he was glowing. It was like light seemed to be coming right out of him. It wasn’t shining down on him, it was coming from him. Or maybe through him would be a better way to say it.

And then, and I checked with James and John after to make sure I wasn’t dreaming it, then I saw what looked like Elijah and Moses standing right there with Jesus. And they were talking together! I mean, what?!?! Why them? Am I supposed to think that Jesus is like, equal to Moses and Elijah, the law and the prophets? Really? Equal? I was going out of my mind! It was just too much to take in – too much to figure out.

So I blurted out – yes, I know, I really have to work on that – I said, “Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here; let’s make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”

I mean, I didn’t know what else to say! I’ve never felt that way before – so lit up, so awestruck, so utterly bewildered. I didn’t want that moment, that feeling, to ever end.
But at the same time I was terrified. We all were! It was Moses and Elijah for crying out loud! Can you imagine?! The biggest names in our whole religious history! Of course they deserve a tabernacle, a place where we can worship. What was I supposed to do?

And then, believe it or not, it got weirder!
Because the next thing we knew we were totally engulfed in a cloud. It was like a super-dense fog rolled in in an instant and completely surrounded us. I couldn’t see a thing!
But it felt amazing. It felt warm, and safe, and happy, and I felt like I could’ve climbed every mountain there was.
And peaceful. So incredibly peaceful. I wasn’t terrified anymore.

I honestly don’t know how long it lasted. It may have only been a short time but it felt like forever – like time didn’t matter anymore. I really don’t know.
But I know what I heard. It was like a voice was just emanating from the cloud. And the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

That wasn’t the first time I’d heard that! Well, it was but it wasn’t. Jesus told us one night around the fire about his baptism, and how as he came up out of the water he experienced God’s Presence totally enfolding him – kind of like that cloud did to us today – and he said God called him God’s beloved. I never forgot those words. And now I got to hear them myself.

And I know this is going to sound really big-headed, because I know that the voice was talking about Jesus. But while I was in that cloud, and feeling those feelings, and experiencing that sense of being so totally immersed in God’s Presence too that I felt like I was being baptized in God’s Spirit too! And I know that I’m God’s beloved too!
No, I don’t mean that I think I’m Jesus. But I swear I know in my heart that God loves me too. Like Jesus. Like Jesus has been saying all along! And I’ve been listening – but you can bet I’ll be listening even more closely now!

And then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as it all happened it all stopped. read on

180204 – Modus Operandi

Yr B ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Mark 1:29-39

If you’ve been with us through January then by now you’re probably getting pretty adept at reading between the lines in the Gospel of Mark. We know that Mark writes very sparingly, and that everything happens in a hurry as there seems to be a breathlessness to it all and an urgency that’s driving everything. But I also want to remind us all that even though we’ve been doing a close and careful reading of Mark for 5 weeks now that we’re still only 39 verses into chapter 1! And that makes a difference because while it may seem to us like it took a long time to get to this point, in the narrative it’s still just barely beginning Jesus’ story. And that makes us see what I want to talk about today in a different light.modus-operandi

Let’s review what’s happened in Mark chapter 1 so far. It begins with a few verses of narration and context, and then John the Baptizer appears, and Jesus makes his entrance (v.9) and is baptized. As he rises from the water he has a profound spiritual experience where he sees the supposed barrier between God and humans ripped open and he’s enfolded in God’s Presence and voice.
Then he has a very briefly described 40 days being tempted in the wilderness followed by a trip to Galilee to begin his public ministry by preaching.
Now we’re all the way up to v.14.

Then he calls his first disciples, completely upending their lives, and by v.21 their gang has entered a synagogue for worship, and of course, Jesus creates quite a scene. That was what we looked at last week.
Let’s pause a moment here and think about what’s going on.

How would you describe what Jesus is doing during verses 14 to 28 – from the time he started preaching, calling disciples, and shaking up synagogues? I’d call it public ministry and engagement.
How would you describe his spiritual energy? I’d call it pretty high!

Now a possibly strange question. Would you say he’s sending energy out or drawing energy in?
The answer may not be obvious – or even matter!

I’m an introvert. Yes, I have a public ‘dancing monkey’ kind of job but being an introvert means I get my energy from my time away from people. You can’t judge an introvert or extrovert by their public persona – it’s where they get their energy from.
Extroverts get their energy replenished by being with people.
I enjoy being here and doing what I do, and I also end up flat out on the couch on most Sunday afternoons!
An extrovert might find themselves all charged up from being in the midst of this many people and find themselves primed and ready to go afterwards.

No one has any idea as to whether Jesus was an introvert or an extrovert. And the case I’m going to make this morning is that the rhythm Jesus follows is deeper than just being introverted or extroverted.
It’s a spiritual rhythm for everyone.
If I had lived those first 28 verses in Mark’s gospel I’d be utterly exhausted. Maybe he was too. Or maybe he was jazzed by it all. Doesn’t matter.
Ultimately, it’s neither physical nor spiritual energy we’re really talking about. It’s bigger than those.
Let’s look what happens.

read on

180128 – Thunderstruck

Yr B ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Mark 1:21-28

Other gospels want us to be awestruck by Jesus. I think the writer of the Gospel according to Mark wants that too, but first he wants to make sure he’s got your attention. So he tells his story at a breathless pace and he leaves you befuddled and off-balance with the crazy stuff in this first chapter.Thunderstruck

The heavens get ripped open and God’s Spirit is no longer thought to be separated from humanity. Jesus is driven into the wilderness and tempted for 40 days and then comes back. He travels to Galilee and starts preaching. He walks up to total strangers and says “Follow me” and they follow. And now he strolls into a synagogue and totally sends their worship service sideways.

Your head should be reeling at all this!
It’s just astonishment after astonishment.
Jesus will render us awestruck soon enough – but for now we’re being run over with a steam roller!
At this point, the appropriate reaction is to be thunderstruck!

I’m going to have some fun with this passage and take it into some strange interpretive territory, but first I want to acknowledge its primary meaning. First we’ll think about what it would’ve meant for the first audience hearing the story – and no, I don’t mean the audience Jesus taught in that synagogue that fateful Saturday. I mean the audience hearing Mark’s gospel in the early 00-70s.

First let’s think about synagogues. Nowadays synagogues function much like this church does, as the gathering, spiritual teaching, and social justice ministry focal point for a community of faith. But in Jesus’ day the centre of their religious and cultural world was the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogues that Jesus goes into are more like prayer gatherings in someone’s house.

They would’ve had leadership but it wasn’t a Pharisee or a Priest (well, maybe in the bigger towns, but certainly not in tiny Capernaum). The leader was a scribe, which means a learned man, a village elder, someone with some religious training but not a formally authorized religious person. Today we might all them a Licenced Lay Worship Leader. This is because everything formal was focused on the Temple. All the sacrifices and pilgrimages and authorized teachings were at the Temple. Village synagogues were very low level compared to that.

And that’s important because it’s not like Jesus walked into a place like this with an organized denominational structure and a formally authorized trained ordained minister and just walked up, gave the scribe and elbow, and took over.

And this is why the people were thunderstruck at his teaching – because he didn’t teach like the scribe who was doing his best but didn’t have a whole whack of theological education behind him. (Then again, neither did Jesus!) Jesus taught with authority. Jesus taught with fresh insight and wisdom – more than they’d ever heard before.

Immediately, a man possessed by an evil spirit confronts Jesus.

read on

180121 – Getting On Board

Yr B ~ Epiphany 3 ~ Mark 1:14-20

Welcome to the shortest sermon in history!
Don’t get your hopes up. I’m not talking about my sermon – I’m talking about the first one Jesus preached in Mark’s gospel. And even though it’s only one verse long (Mark 1:15) it is jam-packed with massively important theological stuff. Enough stuff to last, oh I don’t know, 18-22 minutes!get-on-board

Let me set the stage. We’ve been looking at the first chapter of the first gospel, Mark, for the past few weeks. We know that Mark’s gospel is short, matter-of-fact, and that everything happens in a hurry in this telling. Mark’s favourite word is immediately – a word we get twice in this short passage today.

We’re only at chapter 1 verse 14 and already Jesus has been baptized and spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted. And now we learn about the beginning of his public ministry. We learn that John the baptizer was arrested and that Jesus had made his way back to his home province of Galilee. Mark is so sparse on details that you have to read between the lines a lot – and sometimes that can lead to interesting questions.

For example, some scholars speculate that Jesus not going back to Galilee until John was arrested suggests that Jesus hung out with John for a while, perhaps doing ministry together, maybe even being John’s disciple! In Galilee Jesus began preaching, and his first sermon – verse 15 – sounds a lot like something John might have said!

Here’s the sermon: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The time is fulfilled.
There are two words for time in Greek – chronos which means clock time, the passing of minutes and hours, and kairos which means a special, opportune, unique, meaningful time. Chronos is an amount of time – Kairos is a quality of time. A kairos moment is one that feels spiritual and energized and holy. This kairos time is full and complete, says Jesus.

And the kingdom of God has come near.
We had proof of that a few verses earlier when during his baptism the heavens were torn open and the supposed barrier between God and humanity was obliterated.
The word translated as near suggests closeness, immediate imminence, and presence.
So, where is God’s kingdom? Right here, all around us, we’re in it.
And when is God’s kingdom? Now! It has drawn near – it doesn’t wait until everything is perfect, or until you die, God’s kingdom has drawn near – right here, right now!

So how does one access or interact with this drawn near kingdom? Repent! Same word John the baptizer used, and it means the same thing. It literally means to go beyond the mind you have, to change the way you understand and perceive the world, to turn from your former way and embrace a new way, Jesus’ Way, God’s kingdom.
It just makes sense. If you feel like you don’t have access to the kingdom now then you need to make a change, turn around, learn to perceive differently.

And believe in the good news.
Too many church people don’t understand the word believe. We think it means to use our heads and agree to a certain list of theological spiritual concepts.
That’s wrong. That’s not what believe is supposed to mean.
Believe actually means to trust, to have faith in – like you’d say to someone who was about to do something big and you wanted to encourage them – you’d say, “I believe in you!” That’s not about intellect – it’s about love, heart, trust.
So to believe in the good news actually means to trust with your heart, to see with your heart. And good news literally translates as gospel.

So that was Jesus’ first sermon. Awesome! A man of few words but every word was epic!

Ok, time for some more speculation into the gaps that Mark leaves. It says that Jesus came into Galilee preaching this good news message.

Where did he preach it? How many times? Who heard it?
Was he becoming known for it?
Were people talking about it at the water cooler at work?
Did the video of him preaching it go viral?

We have to fill in the gap, and we have to imagine that there was a big buzz about Jesus because if we don’t then the next few verses are really hard to believe. Jesus starts to call potential disciples.

1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen.
1:17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
1:18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Imagine you’re Simon or Andrew. You’re at work, doing your thing. Out of nowhere some guy walks up to you and says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”
What’s your reaction? Be honest!
You’d think the guy was nuts! read on

180114 – On Your Mark

Yr B ~ Epiphany 2 ~ Mark 1:12-13 (off lectionary)

Last week we started the season of Epiphany, which is all about awakening and seeing and realizing things, and we started our journey through the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark. In case you weren’t here last week, I mentioned that Mark is the shortest gospel and it has a really interesting kind of flavour. Everything is direct, and matter-of-fact in Mark. And stories that you probably know well from the other gospels are really different here. Well, they’re the same story, but Mark tells it in a very simple and unembellished way.race-on-your-mark

Take today’s reading for example. It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation. It’s very familiar, but if you only had Mark’s gospel and none of the others I’m not sure this story would be familiar. I doubt we’d even notice it, because Mark doesn’t seem to give it much attention at all. If you know the temptation story think for a second about the details of it. Think about who Jesus talks to, think about what the temptations are, think about where the temptations happen, think about what you might do if you were tempted by the same things.

Now forget all about that stuff. Because if we only had Mark this would be our entire temptation story:

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

It’s not that Mark disagrees with the other gospels. The basic info is still there. But that’s all there is. Basic info. Forty days, tempted, wild beasts, angels. Done.
Why the difference?

The scholarly consensus is that both Matthew and Luke wrote their versions of the gospel with Mark in their hand. They used Mark’s basic structure and timeline as their starting point and told the same stories in more or less the same order. John’s gospel is really different, so either they didn’t have Mark or chose to ignore it! Mark, Luke, and Matthew are called the synoptic gospels – that means ‘seen together’ because they agree with one another.

So, all that should raise some questions for you.
Why do Matthew and Luke have fuller versions of the story?

Is it because Mark only knew the basics and the others knew more information?
Is it because Mark didn’t care very much about the stories?
Is it because Mark had the whole story but Matthew and Luke didn’t think there was enough meat in it so they made up a bunch of details to make the story better?

These are all valid options – and you can read lots of doctoral dissertations championing each of those theories. No one knows for sure why Mark wrote like this, but I’ll share some of the reasons I think make the most sense.

We need to remember that theirs was an oral culture, not a literate one. They didn’t have books because books all had to be hand copied, and most people probably couldn’t read anyway. So they told their stories orally, and they were incredibly good at it.
So why shift gears and write it down all of a sudden? Great question!

One huge motivation was that Mark was written in the shadow of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Whether it was about to happen or had just happened we don’t know, but we do know that things had gotten very bad in Jerusalem.
In the year 66 the Jews revolted against their Roman occupiers. There were uprisings, and war, and ultimately in the year 70 the temple was destroyed.
This is exactly the time we think Mark was writing.

If you’re in an oral culture, you change your main method of communication when you feel threatened and wonder if you’ll be around anymore to keep telling your story!
The temple was the centre of their culture, and it was literally crumbling before their eyes. This was catastrophic.
Imagine if we arrived this morning and this church was burned down. Now multiply that by about a thousand.
It was more than just a worship space to them. It was the centre of everything. And now it’s gone. Their world had fallen apart. That’s motivation!

And that sense of urgency may also explain why Mark is written the way it is.
There was no time to elaborate! Get the story down as quick as you can. We may not be here tomorrow!

And that may also partly explain why Mark’s favourite word appears to be immediately! Everything in Mark happens immediately.

read on

180107 – Grand Opening

Yr B ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Mark 1:4-11

Happy New Year! We’re going to be spending the first part of this year exploring the first chapter of the first gospel – the gospel according to Mark. Now, if you know your bible well you know that Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, but Mark was actually written about 10-15 years earlier than Matthew and Luke, and about 25 or so years earlier than the gospel of John. So, Mark is really first.grand-opening

Curiously, and in stark contrast to the season we’ve just emerged from – Christmas – there is no nativity or birth story for Jesus in Mark. Well, perhaps there is, as I’ll suggest in about 10 minutes!
Instead, Mark begins with Jesus already as an adult. We’ll talk about all kinds of features of the writing in Mark over the course of the month, but the first thing you might notice is how direct and matter-of-fact Mark is. Church folks who have spent a long time in rooms like this and have good familiarity with the other gospels will tend to fill in the blanks and spaces that Mark leaves with details from the other gospels.
So it’s important for us to take a moment and remember that at the time Mark was written there were no other gospels!
This was it.
It’s a Spartan and unembellished text. And it will often feel raw and edgy.
That’s probably why it’s my favourite of the four gospels!

Today we get the familiar story of Jesus’ baptism – although the way Mark treats it may seem a bit unfamiliar! I’m going to go verse by verse and amplify the text as I go.
There is so much good theological material here! I hope you enjoy this! Mark 1:4-11.

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness [a place that symbolizes transformation],
proclaiming a baptism [which was not a unique innovation of John’s – baptisms were part of Jewish tradition as far back as Leviticus 13 and 15],
a baptism of repentance [the Greek word is metanoia, which literally means to go beyond the mind you have, to have a change of understanding, a change of heart, to live a new Way]
for the forgiveness of sins [sins are less about singular actions you did or didn’t do, and more about your state of being – a state where you feel you have missed the mark, fallen short, not lived up to the ideal God desires for us].

So, John appears in a transformative place, offering an old tradition for a new understanding to help us live out our ideals that God has inspired in us but that we’re not living up to. That sounds a lot like what happens at New Years every year! Hmm!

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem [obviously an exaggeration, but still!]
were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
To confess is to openly declare, admit, and acknowledge. The first step in making a change is admitting you need a change!

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist [an odd detail for Mark who doesn’t like details, but this is meant to directly connect John to the prophet Elijah who’s described the same way in 2 Kings 1:8],
and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 John proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
There’s actually no definite article at the start of this sentence in Greek, so it isn’t actually “THE one” who’s coming, but rather just “ONE who is more powerful than I is coming after me”. That’s not a big deal, but it’s one of those subtle ways that editors inject their own theology into a text when it isn’t there in the oldest documents.

John continues,
1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Enter Jesus. But watch how quickly the narrative moves in Mark.
There’s no dialogue, there are no explanations or descriptions, it’s just down to business.

read on

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