Deny.

Mark 8:31-38

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

How many times have we heard something, but we just don’t get it?  It may be right in front of us, or someone we are close to may be telling us something…but, we just don’t see it or hear it!  I know that’s true in my life!

And, how many times do we say something and wonder, is anyone listening?  Believe me, I wonder that all of the time as a dad… and as a preacher!!  

In our gospel lesson, we see Jesus giving a somber declaration, a prophetic word, that he must suffer, that he will be betrayed, and that he will be killed.  Peter would have none of this!  He had put his identity and expectations in and on Jesus.  His sense of self, his image, was wrapped up in a triumphant Jesus, a victorious Messiah.  Yet, Jesus says that tragedy must come first, that suffering is a key part of our identity with Christ.

Identity is interesting.  I have an identity…I’m a runner, pastor, parent, husband, friend…you have an identity as well.  Our church has an identity…we think of it in some ways, others may think of it in other ways.

In our culture, we also put our identities in somewhat vague national ideas…I’m a Democrat, or I am a Republican, or something else.  We place our identities in things that we have been conditioned to place them in.  Now, I’m not saying it’s wrong to have political or cultural opinions, I certainly do.  Yet, in that mix, we have lost our identity in the local, in our neighborhoods and even in our city.  We’ve let ideologies and marketing shape us rather than getting into the nitty gritty of everyday local relationships.  We live above place, not in or with place. 

Oftentimes, we put our identities above our human experience and relationships.  We don’t often like to deal with struggle or suffering.  Even if we know we can’t avoid it.

Friends, this is what Jesus is sharing with us this morning.  Life is filled with suffering.  We do all that we can to avoid it, but it’s there. 

Jesus says in our text this morning that in order to be a follower of Jesus, we must deny ourselves and take up Jesus’ cross, the way of suffering.  We must be willing to enter into the darkness of our lives, the lives of others, and this world.  This is a hard word, but if we are to enter into life, true life where we grow and become all that God intended, if we want to experience true joy, we must be willing to suffer.  We must enter into tragedy.  

Jesus knows this and addresses it head on.  Peter rebukes Jesus for saying this, yet Jesus gives a strong response as a Rabbi should and would do to one of his disciples, “get behind me Satan”.  Don’t deny what I’m saying or will experience.  Jesus is frustrated, but Jesus loves Peter and wants Peter to understand that he cannot hide from suffering.  

We don’t want to deny ourselves, we don’t want to struggle, and we don’t want to ask hard questions of ourselves oftentimes in the church.  We look for miracle workers instead of looking for the miracles that we have deep within us.  We want the church to be filled with people, to come and join us, but we don’t stop to think about what those same people really need…a group of folks deeply committed to each other and willing to put others ahead of them and to deny themselves, enter into the struggles of others, be uncomfortable, and inconvenienced.  

We have an amazing church filled with amazing gifts in our people.  How do we release ourselves from what we’ve always done and find replenishing and renewing life by inviting others in to co-create new possibilities with us, while also engaging the community and joining in with what God is already doing around us?

I think it starts with vulnerability.  This season, this church has blessed me personally by so many folks being vulnerable with me…honestly vulnerable.  Not coming to me with pre-described opinions, but simply saying, “I don’t know where I am or where we are, but glad to be together…now, what is our imagination together”….and, so many folks have allowed me to also be vulnerable…when we start their, which, by the way, is the example of Jesus and God’s power…humility, emptying, and listening…

We feel like we have to have answers, have it all together, when, in reality, none of us do!  I know that I’m pursuing a doctorate in missional leadership through the church…I’m learning a lot…and I’m also learning, once again, that I will never have all the answers, nor does anyone else.

Richard Rohr says this: “the genius of the biblical revelation is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates falling to achieve its only promised wholeness…Jesus is never upset at sinners, he is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners! Jesus was fully at home with this tragic sense of life.”

Jesus does go on to say that if we deny ourselves, if we take up our cross, if we are willing to look at our lives and become aware of who we are even in our suffering and darkness, then we will find Jesus with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  

Jesus didn’t give up on Peter, and doesn’t give up us.  Peter is often called the rock.  Jesus said that he’d build his church on this same Peter that he rebuked.  He believed in Peter.

And, this same Jesus believes in Fleming Road UCC.  This church which is a part of the church universal that he anointed Peter to be a leader of.  Like Peter, we have to be vulnerable, and authentic, and also realize that we need healing and growth.  

I believe in this church.  This church’s best history is ahead of us, and that means embracing change, growth, and even the times we live in now.  We have to change, we have to think differently, we have to open the doors of our church to others, we have to move beyond the way we’ve done church and think differently in order to build community with those around us. 

Friends, yes, God’s story, and ours, is filled with suffering and tragedy, but the story doesn’t end there.  Yes, Jesus is betrayed, Jesus suffers, Jesus is killed.  We are betrayed, we suffer, and we die.  Yet, there is resurrection.  There is new life.  There is a Risen Christ.  WE will rise with the Christ, and, in fact, we are rising daily with this Christ, even as we experience suffering.  We are learning to trust as we hang in there with the story, living through the tragic as well as the triumphant, while staying committed to the authenticity that we’ve demonstrated for a long time.  The world around us is looking for that authenticity and a willingness to embrace the messy world we all live in, knowing that we aren’t alone in the messiness or the suffering.  God is with us, and Lord willing, a community of folks around us.

Deconstruct.

Mark 1:9-15

The Baptism of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Temptation of Jesus

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.

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Promises!  Our lives evolve around them in many ways.  We have certain commitments that we make throughout our lives…commitments to family, to our country, to our spouses, to one another as a church.  

There are also commitments to us, from friends, families, neighbors.  That’s why it’s so great when we see those promises kept, and why it’s so hard when those promises are broken.  And, it’s interesting, that in this culture, we are amazed when promises are kept…we celebrate it almost!

In our faith journey, we have times where we doubt God’s commitments to us…we forget…I know I do.  These are times where my faith is “deconstructed” though, sometimes even a time of wilderness…but, it is through those times where my faith also grows.  And, through it all, at different times, we see that God’s commitment to us is deeper and more intimate than we could imagine.  

Our gospel, or “good news” text this morning is also about coming to a now moment of a promise fulfilled. 

The Israelites had been promised a Messiah, a deliverer.  Jesus, who’s very name means “salvation” comes on to the scene after John the Baptist had been announcing that the time was upon Israel for the Messiah.  John the Baptist recognizes Jesus as the messiah, he baptizes him, and then the voice comes out of heaven, the voice of God proclaiming that Jesus has relationship with the Father, his son.  That the relationship between God and humanity has been marked in Jesus through a shared essence with God and with humanity.  Jesus is the bridge.  And, he is loved by all that God is…when the voice of heaven pronounces this love, that is a message to us that God loves all of us as we share in Jesus’ humanity.  When we say we love Jesus, God revels in our love because Jesus shares in God’s divinity or “otherness”.

A Hebrew word that describes Jesus is “gaol”.  Or “redeemer-kinsman”.  Jesus is our brother, our friend, a part of us who has saved us.  He has gone out before us and has demonstrated the way we are all to live.  And, in Jesus’ being, Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God, God’s promise of being with us, is now fulfilled.  The now moment has come.  

Yet, before that announcement, there is the hard work of refining or cultivating what it means to the Messiah.  Jesus is taken to the wilderness, he is tempted, and he overcomes.  Deserts are dry, lonely places.  Jesus is being promised all sorts of things by the tempter, yet he doesn’t give in…although he is tempted.

It’s interesting to me that in the Gospel of Mark, the temptation of Jesus, Jesus’ going into the wilderness, comes right after this amazing moment of baptism, of commitment, and of God’s voice calling Jesus “beloved”.  

Mark doesn’t go into as much detail about the temptations in the desert as the other writers of the gospels do.  Mark seems to want to give us the facts without the details, the writer of Mark seems like he wants to get to the end of the book, the end of the story quickly.  That makes this transition even more jarring. We go from amazing moments of intimacy, to dry places…places where we are stripped of what we know, oftentimes alone…and tempted .

We know from the other gospel accounts that Jesus was tempted to be relevant, powerful, and to solve the worlds needs.  Yet, he resisted.  Jesus knew who we was and that his life had more meaning, that hope for the world.  In order for us, to know and love each other well, to be inclusive and work towards personal and communal wholeness and abundance, we needed to see Jesus’ life, his coming to us, his living with us, his dying because of us, and his rising from the dead, overcoming everything, Jesus had to do the hard work of confronting his doubts, his demons, and his temptations.

I think that says something to us…we are marked by God’s love…and that love, all love, doesn’t grow until it’s put into the wilderness, where temptations to move past something and get back to “civilization” or “normal” too fast prevents us from growing.  Friends, as we are walking this wilderness of pandemic, and faced with temptations of different voices calling us to this conspiracy theory or some ideology or so called “leaders” with empty promises…or, even worst, acting like nothing is happening and just ignoring what’s going on around us and wanting to be comfortable, we miss the opportunity to grow and become all that God intends.  

Friends, during this season of Lent, we have been given time to go to the desert with Jesus.  To confront our own demons, doubts, and temptations.  To see Jesus as the one who loves us and believes in us…and to mark our allegiance to God’s kingdom presence over anything or person in this world.

This is a call for us personally, and for us a church and a member of this community, this neighborhood. 

Our calling as a church is to be the people who follow Jesus.  To have confidence and humility in who we are as the Jesus’ body.  To repent, which again, in Greek is “metanoia”, or change of heart and mind, where we need to and to grow from a time of being in the wilderness to a place of paradise and promise for the world around us.

It is hard work, yet we have a redeemer-kinsman, a friend, who is with us, in us, around us who want so reveal to us the abundance that is life with God.  May we seek out this Jesus and may we know that he is waiting for us even as he pursues us.  

Friends, believe in the good news.  The time is now for Fleming Road UCC, and for me and for you, to live into the promise of God’s Presence in our lives, of God’s kingdom of justice, fairness, honor, deep love, of God’s friendship with us to be lived out and made real for us and for our neighbors.

Transfiguration.

Mark 9:2-9

The Transfiguration

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved;listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

The Coming of Elijah

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

When I was 37 years old, I went to my doctor at the time for a physical.  The doctor had become a good friend of mine over the years and knew the line of work that I was in.  After the physical, he sat me down and asked a question:  “How do you want to live the 2nd half of your life?”  I was kind of taken aback, but he went on to say that even though I was active, my lifestyle of being in ministry with students and families at the time wasn’t consistently active.  Plus, I had a lot of lunch meetings and pizza parties so my diet wasn’t that great.  My vitals were fine, my weight was around 165-170 and most days I felt fine even if my energy level sometimes flattened out.  However, the doctor told that if I kept leading my life the way that I was, things may change quicker than I would want.  I took that as a wake-up call for change.  

Debbie was a runner at the time and I began to think that may be something I should do more consistently.  I hated running in high school, I went out for the soccer team and track teams and didn’t stick with them because they both involved so much running!  (You’d think that I would know that before I went out for those sports).  But, I had other things on my mind in high school besides running.  

But, 16 years ago, I thought that if Deb could do it, I could as well.  I started out slow, then built up my endurance and confidence, and found myself enjoying it.   I also changed my diet and I found that I had more energy and that my body was changing. 

Running led me to be curious about the sport.  Some doors opened and I kind of fell into coaching.  I quickly knew I was in over my head so I sought out help from other coaches and with a friend of mine who is the running guru in Cincinnati, Randy Cox, otherwise known as the Wizard.  He coached  me along and gave me so much confidence and a vision for who I could be.  He believed in me and it made me realize that what I was missing in high school was a coach or a friend who would journey with me in the running.  

I also found that I had more confidence.  Not only in my running, but in all of my life.  The running coincided with a new course in my life of wanting to understand more about me and how I relate to others.  I wanted to grow and I knew that I needed other coaches, friends in my life that I could journey with.  It was about that time that I began working with a spiritual director and also starting an accountability group, as well as jumping into a clergy cohort.

I was changing, for the better in many ways.  I believe that life is always giving us opportunities for growth, but different times in our lives present unique opportunities for us to grow, to be transfigured if you will…which is what this morning’s gospel lesson is about, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration.

The story takes up 6 days after a series of events where Jesus is going around sharing the good news of God’s Presence, a message that was about bringing about much anticipated change.  At one point in previous stories, Jesus is asking what others were saying about him.  Some said that he was Elijah, John the Baptist.   Peter said that He was the Messiah though…he had also healed some folks, one story right before this was a healing from blindness.  He’s also beginning to share some hard things about his own suffering that was soon to come, that he would experience deep pain, and that he would die and rise again.  Crowds were following him, I’m sure it was hard for them to understand, and even harder for Jesus to convey this message.  

Then we come to today’s passage where Jesus is getting away from the crowds, as he often did.  He went up to a mountain with three of his friends.  These were good guys I’m sure, but not always on top of things, and they had some serious issues.  Peter was anxiety ridden and prone to making big statements, only to not be able to back them up.  He denied even knowing Jesus during his darkest hour a short time later.  James and John were concerned with greatness and arguing about who would sit where in eternity.  They seemed to be way more concerned by another life other than the one they were living.  They seemed consumed with theological discussions and fantasies on power rather than helping those around them.  Jesus had a few words for the how the disciples were to be servants at their expense a while later as well.  Yet, through it all, through their anxieties, image issues, and failures, Jesus counted them as friends and believed in them.  He invited them into events and life experiences with him that were transformative and meaningful.  

This event, this mountain top experience had a profound impact on the Peter, James, and John.  They saw before them Jesus, their friend, changed, transfigured, beautiful.  How did they react?   Well, they were overwhelmed, but they were glad to be there, they knew they wanted to be there.  Peter was so caught up in the moment, that he wanted to create three dwellings or set up tents for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.  Somehow he wanted to contain that moment.  He was terrified, as they all were.  They didn’t know where to go or what to do, yet, they knew that things had changed.

Then, the clouds came.  Maybe that’s to say that things aren’t always clear.  Yet, God says, this is my son, part of me, I love him, LISTEN to him.  

When they left the mountain, notice that Jesus is with them.  He’s not distant.  Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they don’t have to validate themselves, just wait, there’s more to the story.  Jesus would die, but he’d rise again.  

Friends, I think that this story has a lot to say about us as persons and as a church.  We are being changed, all of us.  We experience change throughout our lives.  It’s inevitable.  Sometimes that change can be terrifying.  It can be confusing and also exciting.  We know we want change and need it.  When it comes, we’re not sure how to respond or the way for us may not be clear.    But God says that we are not alone, that God is with us, going through change with us, and to listen to God’s son.   This Jesus is also rising up within us.  He is alive and is working in and through us, calling us to have confidence in ourselves as his friends.  

We are connected to the Son, Christ lives in us and his Spirit is moving all around us.  I sense that in this church and community.

Friends, I believe that Fleming Road UCC is going through a transfiguration.  We are being changed into something beautiful.  We are inviting in conversation partners to help us see through the clouds of what that change will bring, we are practicing listening skills to each other, our community, and the word of God.  I know I’m listening. 

I have a shared vision with you. I want to see this church filled with people of all sorts of ages, color, economic backgrounds, thoughts, beliefs.  Folks all being called to live life together in the way of Jesus and folks seeking out a Jesus who is pursuing them.  I hope to see all of us living into Jesus, a Jesus who was changed before the eyes of his disciples where they could see him in even deeper ways.  It will take time, hard work, and some suffering, but it will also be dazzling, encouraging, and wonderful.  

Friends, it’s good to be with you as we go to the mountaintop together, and back down into the valley…hear God’s voice telling us, I love you, I’m with you, I am present…and calling us into Presence…  

Momentum.

Mark 1:29-39

Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

A Preaching Tour in Galilee

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This question of becoming is interesting to me. What are we becoming, not only as persons, but as a church?  I have often thought about the many influences on my life, both good and bad, and how they shape me.  What are those influences that are shaping us as a church?  Comparisons, numbers, business models, or church models that we’ve never questioned?

I know that I want my life to matter.  And for our church to matter. I am fairly confident, that on most days at least, that I am becoming the person that I want to be, that there is momentum towards being the person that I’m called to be…and the same for our church… 

Every day when I run, I pray for myself, others, my family, and for this church, I usually pray variations of the same thing, “God may my son or daughter become the person that they’ve always wanted to become, the person you created them to be.”

In addition to my prayer for our kids and family, I pray daily for the three things that Benedictine monks commit to: stability, obedience, and conversion. Conversion is a good word. It’s a constant in our lives that, if recognized, welcomed, and cultivated, can lead to a deep sense of growth. No matter how old you are or how much you think you’ve settle, our lives, especially when illuminated by God, are meant for continual growth and conversion, or a sense of always becoming. 

Our lectionary today also has a passage from Isaiah.  It gives us a snapshot of how God carries us and forgives (actually, the same word in Hebrew). This is an amazing God, a powerful God, a God of limitless possibilities. Yet, this is a God who identifies with us, even youths grow weary, but God carries us and protects us under God’s wings. With those same wings, God wants us to soar, to become who were created to be. 

We seem to get tired a lot though don’t we?  Especially in this season as continue to experience the pandemic, injustices in our society, and political unrest and a culture that seems to constantly to be moving faster than we can keep up.  

Our lives are filled with anxiety and that anxiety can come out in ways that we don’t expect, or in settings that can catch us off guard. Sometimes those anxieties can lead us to react in ways that we may not have intended. Yet, this God says to us that God’s big enough to handle every part of us, that when we are weary, that God will carry us. 

As a congregation here at Fleming Road, we have had some anxiety, some weariness over the years, and especially in this season. You have been through a lot of transition and struggle.  I know there is a lot of grieving, not just over physical deaths, but there are other kinds of grieving as well in transitions. We have to experience loss in this life, yet even in loss and grief, there can be hope for growth of some kind, hope for new life to spring up, and new adventures even as we treasure the really important things that history in a place gives us, deep relationships and community. Friends, God has been faithful to us and continues to be. I believe that God has carried us, has forgiven us, and is now getting ready to lift us up. Are we ready to run? I think we are getting there. 

Our Gospel lesson in Mark gives us a picture of Jesus. Jesus is our example and we are called to follow him as a gathered body called the church. In our text this morning, Jesus goes to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. In those days, the matriarch of the house was responsible for everything that went on that house. It was also a culture that values hospitality and the matriarch was called to show hospitality in generous ways. Jesus was an important visitor, and the mother in law couldn’t have the privilege that was hers to show hospitality. Jesus heals her, restores her, gives her energy and she is able to get up and serve her guests. 

It’s a beautiful picture of what we are called to do as a church as well. We are being healed in order to show hospitality to the world around us, to our neighbors. It’s more than just opening up our church doors, it’s about growing in relationship with ourselves, it’s about becoming a people and a church that is known for our hospitality. Fleming Road UCC has been this way in the past, and the present, and we are being carried towards a future that is upon us now. 

There are other organizations and churches that are also in this process of being healed and restored in our neighborhood, groups like Tikkun Farm, local schools, and other churches…Folks that we share similar DNA or “ethos” with and proximity to. As we work together, I believe that a new hub of activity and healing for others will emerge at Fleming Road UCC. Folks will come to be healed and to meet this Jesus that we demonstrate. 

Now, one word of caution, as folks come, we don’t need to be validated by more folks, we have validation as a congregation now, God has given us that, we do not need to look at our growth as a sign of God’s favor, we have God’s favor now. The example of Jesus in this story and in others is an example of someone who was confident in himself. He went to lonely places like deserts to cultivate his understanding of himself. Jesus didn’t need to be validated in who he was by performing miracles or drawing big crowds. Jesus didn’t need folks, or even demons as in this story to remind him of who he was. He even told folks and demons to be quiet. He didn’t want the miracles or crowds to get in the way of his deeper message, which is that God has come near, and this God is much more interested in us and crazy in love with us than we could ever imagine…and that this God wants to heal and restore us so that we can show hospitality and love to the world around us as we become the people we are called to become…and, in so doing, we will become the persons, and the church that we’ve always wanted to be, the persons and the church God called us to be…which will be a witness to the transformation that is happening all around us God makes his kingdom and Presence known through Fleming Road UCC and others in Springfield Township and beyond. 

Revelation

Mark 1:21-28

The Man with an Unclean Spirit

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Several years ago, it actually seems like ages ago now…my family moved to Pasadena, CA where I finished my masters in divinity degree at Fuller Seminary.  It was a great season of adventure and new experiences almost every week.  I went to seminary a bit later in life so I had a young family.  Yet, we all remember going to the beach most Sundays after church for picnics, hiking in the mountains surrounding Pasadena, weekend trips to Yosemite, Joshua Tree, San Luis Obispo, King’s Canyon, Mexico, and simply being in LA and experiencing the beauty of the diversity in thought and culture that is Fuller Seminary.  

I’m not sure if I’ve shared this story before, but it fits with our discussion on “revelation”, or something being revealed to us and being astonished or overwhelmed.  

I was in a seminary class one day.  I got to class late, which is probably not a surprise to some (although I am much better these days!),  so I had to sit in the back row of this class with a friend of mine Igors who was from Latvia.  The desks in the back where not comfortable and had the small pull out desk spaces…too small for my laptop (this was before the ipad!).  Igors was a good friend, we climbed Mt. Whitney together with some other friends.  He had lived through Soviet rule in Latvia.  This guy was not afraid.  

Our class had a visiting professor from the UK.  He was an accomplished scholar with a great wit about him.  He had some great stories to share, and, on that day, he experienced another event that would make a great story.

As we were sitting in class, the room began to move, the windows behind our back row desks began to wobble in ways that they were not created to do…the frames around the window looked like they were turning into jello.  Everyone in the class jumped underneath their desks, Igors and I jumped up, looked at each other, and realized that we had no cover…meanwhile our professor, with his British accent, yelled “earthquake” with a kind of question mark and ran out the door…

It was an earthquake, apparently a 5 or 6 point something, that lasted a few moments with it’s epicenter just a few miles away from Pasadena.

After it stopped, we joked a bit, looked around for damage, remarked about how LA really is prepared for this sort of thing, and we all left class as our professor decided to cancel it after he came back in the room.  As I was walking home a few blocks away, I looked up in the mountains around me, and was overwhelmed with a sense that I had just experienced something that was overwhelming, that could bring down buildings and these mountains.  I also thought about a revelation that overwhelmed me to the point of tears:  God’s power, this supernatural “other” that causes things to grow, to create, and in the words of the psalmist, can cause mountains to tremble.  When I got home, I found my family safe, but they too had some amazing stories to share…I’ll let you ask them about them!

Our gospel passage this am gives witness to a powerful God, to an experience that caused those witnessing it and experiencing it to tremble and marvel.  There is a man who has been demon possessed, he is out of his wits.  Some would say he had a mental illness and dismiss it as a possession, either way, he was not healthy and in need of healing.  

In the book of Mark, the author has a theme of painting Scribes and Pharisees, those who were scholars and priests, as folks concerned with power.  They had a system, a way of life, that they wanted to maintain.  Any threat to the status quo, their transactional way of living that kept them at the top of the social structure, they would try to squash through all sorts of power plays, arguments, bullying, social threats, and even physical threats.  They were afraid of Jesus.  His presence and stance on loving others, especially those on the margins that the Scribes and Pharisees wanted to keep on the margins, threatened them.  Jesus was bringing these “other” folks into the synagogues, inviting them to the parties that “they” all attended, including those who were hard to love.  He was inviting folks to question, and even change, the system that was in place that prevented folks from experiencing growth.

The “people” in this passage, as it says in verse 22 were astounded by Jesus’ teaching.  He had authority that the Scribes didn’t have.  He had relationship and was  practitioner of loving actions, where as the Scribes didn’t and were not.  They were amazed, but they still don’t necessarily believe.  Oftentimes we are amazed, but we still have disbelieve, we have to ask ourselves, are we looking to be amazed even today?  Or do we want to keep the status quo, stay comfortable and in some sense of control?

If there’s one thing that this pandemic has taught us, it is that even when we think we are in control, things happen…and just like that earthquake, can shake us to our core.  Something may even be revealed to us in a deep way.  Do we have the courage to embrace this moment, or the revelation that God wants to give us?

Jesus also had power, power that can penetrate even the darkest places in our lives and in our world…power that even the demons recognized.  Jesus calls out what this man is experiencing.  The demon possessed man can’t hide, and neither can the demons.  Jesus demonstrated a deep sense of who he was and is, rebukes the demons, silences them, and then banishes them from this man.  Jesus has power over even the supernatural, things we don’t see or understand.  Jesus is in effect making a statement, that he embodies the very power of God.

In those days, and we can relate to it today, folks who had diseases, were possessed with demons, had illness or some kind of physical issue were often labeled and stigmatized by others.  They were to blame for their ailment somehow, or God was judging them.  Folks on the margins were “unclean” and any proper, believing person would not come near them or it would make them unclean as well.  

Yet, as it says elsewhere in Scripture, that was not the case, that Jesus was indignant towards systems that oppress and limit folks.  Jesus came along and healed folks, and as demonstrated throughout scripture, restored folks into community, into relationship with others.  Jesus does come near, does enter into the uncleanliness of our lives, and the opposite happens, through our relationship with God, we are made clean.  Jesus says to us that God is more powerful than our circumstances, God wants to bring healing, restoration, and growth…oftentimes in ways that we can never truly understand.  

Jesus heard this man’s cries, this man’s prayers.  God also hears our cries and prayers and enters into our lives, is present, and wants to reveal to us a deeper power, more powerful than earthquakes even.  

That power of God’s Presence that called me into being, that rescued/saved me through Jesus, and that sustains, carries, forgives me as I live this life God’s given me and that I have the privilege of sharing with you.  Let us live in this revelation, as best as we can, during a pandemic and whatever else comes our way, knowing that God is with us, all of us!