Proper 10(B): New Complexity in an Old Story

Proper 10(B): New Complexity in an Old Story

Mark 6:14-29

By: Colin Cushman

If you are like me, this story has always been pretty straightforward: John the Baptist gets beheaded because he’s been speaking out about Herod’s incestuous relationship. And his daughter is the agent of this action through her stellar dancing skills.

Easy enough.

If we were getting more historical-critical, we could even note that at the time of writing, John the Baptist likely still had disciples of a parallel messianic cult, making this story part of the gospels’ polemic ensuring Jesus’ priority. However, if you peel apart the layers and really dig around a little bit, the basic story doesn’t change but all of a sudden it becomes much richer.

As a prelude to the main story, we see Herod in a panic. Like Macbeth, he is haunted by from having killed John the Baptist and sees him around every turn. When he looks at Jesus’ ministry, he can’t escape the specter of this executed holy man. And so the author takes us back in time to relive the events that lead to this state of affairs.

This flashback provides a prime case study of intertextuality (the way that multiple texts play off of each other and shape each other’s meanings). Echoing through this passage are numerous other Biblical stories that should shape our interpretation. Two immediate Hebrew Bible parallels come to mind. First, when we read that Herod ends up killing John on the basis of a rather stupid promise that he made, it evokes the tale of Jephthah, who kills his daughter as a sacrifice because of a similarly stupid vow he takes. Second, we also see traces of Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel. So too in this story does a “king” (Herod is technically a tetrarch, not a king) succumb to his wife’s wily manipulations to kill Naboth and steal his land. Moreover, this story also had a similar afterlife: the belief circulated that Elijah would come heralding The Day of the Lord—a view that echoes the previous rumors about John.

The most prominent parallel, however, involves foreshadowing. Through his account of John’s death, our author primes our expectations for Jesus’ own death. Note the striking parallels. Both are executed unjustly by the dominant political rulers. Each ruler has a strange attraction to them, but through the pressure of an external agent, is coerced into executing them. Note, too, that the stories are even parallel in their implausibility: Pilate was withdrawn from his position by Rome (the very people who watched people fight to the death for sport) for being too violent; Herod massacred scores of people, including much of his immediate family, because he thought they might one day usurp the throne. It doesn’t seem particularly feasible that either of these rulers would be cowed into doing something they didn’t want to. Rather, Josephus’ account is more likely: Herod killed John because he saw the crowds he was gathering and eliminated him as a threat—just as he had done to so many others during his reign.

If we dig down into this story, another curious dynamic emerges. In verse 20, we hear a delightful yet confusing tidbit: “John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.” Remember the content of what John was preaching. Q (the source behind Matthew and Luke) contains a condensed version of John’s sermons: “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon?  Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives….  The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.”

That is exceptionally harsh and not at all fun if directed at you. John’s caustic message was compelling, especially among those disenfranchised for whom the current system wasn’t working. But enjoyable? Especially for someone in power? That was who John was most directly attacking. That just doesn’t square up. Which begs the question: If not John’s actual content, what was Herod hearing?

One conjecture is that Herod saw this as a spectacle rather than caring about the actual content. It’s not uncommon that one develops a morbid interest toward things that should not be enjoyable in the slightest. Consider Alice Cooper or car crashes or the Jackass movies. All of these, intentionally or not, are grotesque, yet many people can’t take their eyes off of them. Perhaps Herod, rather than enjoying the substance of John’s message, was similarly captivated by the human drama and fallout surrounding John’s acerbic message.

It is worth noting one additional dynamic in this story. The author really leans into the motif of food and eating. Immediately after this story, we see Jesus feeding the 5,000. The author juxtaposes these two to contrast the world’s power with the power manifested through Jesus. On one hand, you have a roomful of the most powerful players in society gorging themselves on a luxurious meal, which culminates in the macabre pièce de résistance: a platter of John’s head. On the other hand, you have a homeless man supplying a mostly poor mob with enough basic staples to fill them in the present moment. The contrast could not be starker. While Herod is entertaining a perverse orgy of the powerful, Jesus insists that God’s abundance covers all, including the poor and needy, with the basic necessities of life. Where Herod’s meal brings death, Jesus’ brings life.

As we noted earlier, while this story does hold up to our traditional, basic reading, it is also resilient enough to survive our poking and prodding. And out of this exploration comes a wealth of themes and additional nuances. This story derives meaning from these other complementary tales, while at the same time reading new layers back into the old stories—all of which combine to shape this into a fascinatingly complex depiction of the life and times of Jesus.

If you want to dive deeper into the literature on John the Baptist, consider The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism by Joan E. Taylor (Eerdmans, 1997).

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Colin Cushman

Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church. In July, he will be starting his new appointments at Central: Seedro-Woolley UMC and Bayview United Methodist Church in the greater Seattle area.

 

Proper 9(B): What Are You Carrying?

Proper 9(B): What Are You Carrying?

Mark 6:1-13

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

At the outset of just about all of life’s journeys, there is some kind of ritual commissioning that sets things in motion. Military officers are commissioned with authority to perform certain tasks and duties commensurate with their rank; artists are commissioned to produce works of art; medical students have “White Coat” ceremonies; and pastors have ordinations and celebrations of new ministry.

For Christians, however, baptism is the ultimate “commissioning.” While different traditions utilize different language to speak about baptism, the gist is the same—love God; love neighbor. As Thomas Aquinas put it, “Baptism is the beginning of the spiritual life and opens the door into the sacramental world…”[1] And when we get right down to it, Mark chapter 6 serves as a kind of commissioning for the disciples as they prepare to journey across the Judean countryside proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ.

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m about to leave town for a few days, there are certain things I try and take care of in order to prepare. I fill up the car with gas; I water the plants; I put an automatic response message on my voicemail and email; I put a hold on the mail…you get the idea. In fact, my wife will be the first one to tell you that even if I’m only going to be gone for one night, I take at least two extra outfits, six books, three pairs of shoes, and at least three months’ worth of dental floss. One can never be too careful with one’s dental hygiene! 🙂

So as the disciples prepare for their journey, we might expect them to stop by the ABC store for an extra wineskin, or for them to run over to the department store for an extra tunic and a nice pair of walking sandals, or even to stop by the First Bank of Palestine to get some extra spending money. But listen to the way Mark describes Jesus’ instructions to the disciples as he commissions them for the journey:

[Jesus] called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

Jesus tells the disciples, not just that they should pack lightly, but that they should pack nothing! The disciples depart, two by two, with nothing but their walking sticks, a fresh pair of sandals, and the clothes on their backs—filled to the brim with doubt and uncertainty, and probably no small amount of fear and anxiety as well.

But what the disciples would soon learn is that for the people they would encounter along the way, it wasn’t food or money or clothes that they most needed; no, the thing that the people to whom the disciples were called to minister needed the most was healing. And so Jesus required the disciples to give what was the hardest thing in the world for them to give: themselves.

Several years ago, a clergy friend of mine began a new ministry in a new diocese. One of the unwritten rules in her new diocese is that clergy are expected to volunteer to serve for a week in the summer as chaplain at the camp and conference center. Before I continue, allow me to dispel any idyllic, Walden Pond-esque notions you may have about the conditions of the camp and conference center of which I speak. This camp and conference center features mosquitoes rivaling a biblical plague; food so sinfully delicious that it comes with a wet wipe and an angiogram; and cabins that wreak of sweat, chlorinated pool water, and mildew.

My friend is, shall we say, not the camping type. And after several particularly horrible experiences as a camp chaplain, she and God had a very frank conversation about her ministry at summer camps. She was very clear with God that she never wanted to set foot in another summer camp again. Ever! But as usual, God listened, nodded, and went on with God’s plan. You can imagine her horror, not just at the requirement that she serve as a summer chaplain, but also at her assignment to serve at the biggest and most exhausting week of the entire year featuring High School sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

She grudgingly left the comforts of home, put on her sandals, loaded up her walking stick, and set out for camp—fully expecting a week of unadulterated misery. But what she found while she was on the mountain with a bunch of high schoolers is that her world didn’t come crashing down. In fact, she discovered something similar to what I imagine the disciples discovered: The moments when we put aside the comforts of home and step into uncertainty and risk are the moments when we are closest to God.

The question that Jesus causes us to ask ourselves is this: What baggage have we been dragging along with us on our journey of faith—not because we need it, but because we’re comfortable with it? What places in our relationship with God are desperate to be explored, but remain unreachable because of what we’re lugging along the way? God is inviting us to unpack the clutter we’ve been accustomed to carrying along with us on our journey and leave it behind. Only then can we take up our walking sticks and dust off our sandals and embark on a journey into God’s abundance!

**With gratitude to my friend and colleague, The Rev. Laurie Brock, whose experience at camp not only shaped my writing, but also shaped my vocation.**

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae vol. 58 (3a. 73-78) “The Eucharistic Presence” trans. William Barden, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1963), 10.

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly was elected the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in May of 2015. A native of Paris, Kentucky, Marshall earned a BA in American Studies at Transylvania University, and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work in Biblical interpretation. Marshall is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Most important and life-giving of all, he is Elizabeth’s husband.

Proper 8(B): Work on the Way

Proper 8(B): Work on the Way

Mark 5:21-43

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

“The interruptions are the work.”

This was one of the first things that was said to me when I started my first year of Contextual Education at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Atlanta, a parish where more than three-quarters of the congregation lives with a chronic mental illness.

I didn’t understand it then, but it became a mantra. Someone stands up, starts talking to themselves, and leaves a service.

The interruptions are the work.

You have to stop running your evening programing to break up an argument.

The interruptions are the work.

Someone stops your conversation to tell you how much what you said two weeks ago made them feel loved.

The interruptions are the work.

Good or bad, right or wrong, convenient or not—The interruptions are the work.

This has become a mantra for my own ministry. Sometimes it has served me well. Other times it’s gotten me into trouble, made me late, or thrown me off the great and holy ministerial workflow. But its always been there.

In interruption there is wisdom. Let us attend.

When Jesus gets off the boat, he’s given something to do. The leader of the local synagogue pleads with him “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” It’s a task that Jesus takes on, and he sets down the road to Jairus’ house.

Then comes the interruption. A woman who has bankrupted herself in healthcare costs makes one of the most amazing statements of faith, that If I only touch his cloak, I will be made whole, and presses through the crowd, straining to touch the hem of his robe.

It would have been imperceptible to anyone but Jesus. It could have been entirely ignored. A silent miracle, one more thing amongst the works of Jesus that, as St. John says, would fill more volumes than the world could contain. (John 21:25, KJV) But Jesus stops, not because Jesus is offended by a perceived theft of power, but because Jesus wants to encounter this woman. Because, the Lord knows, the interruptions are the work.

But work or not, interruptions take time. Time that Jairus’ daughter didn’t have. And a scant few verses later, Jesus is being told to go home. It’s too late. Don’t bother. We hear the words of Martha echo in our ears “Lord, if you had been here…” (John 11:21 NRSV) And where we see death, we see the end of this young woman’s life. Jesus sees but an interruption. Jesus gets to work.

I’ve had to nuance my understanding of what it means to find the holy in the interruption. Interruption is not always good in and of itself. What makes interruptions good and holy is that we attend to them knowing what our end, what our goal, is.

This kind of attention to interruption only worked at Holy Comforter because we knew in our bones that the mission of that parish was to be beloved community for those who were cast to the margins of our society, and anything we did, any interruption we attended to would be in service of that mission.

If we get clear about where it is we’re going, and what it is we’re doing, then we can abide the interruptions, and not let them become distractions.

What we see in the Markan pericope is Jesus clear that he is moving toward the healing of Jairus’ daughter, setting her as a type of the kind of life that Jesus is to bring. New, abundant, resurrected life. Everything that happens on the road to Jairus’ house works in the service of that end. The hemorrhaging woman, though an interruption to the task at hand, becomes another opportunity to share life and healing in the service of Christ’s purpose— to make known the reign of God come near.

What this means for us then, us as church, is that we have to get clear about what our end, our telos, our purpose, is. Is it to, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”? (P. 855, BCP1979) If so, what does that mean for those who we would encounter as interruptions on the way? Can we see them as moments of the spirit breaking in? Will we allow ourselves to be conduits of Christ’s love and power? Will we be tools for healing?

If we know in our bones whose we are, and what it is that we are working for, then we can have the grace to let the interruptions be the work, and not to grow weary.

The interruptions are the work.

Blessed be the work.

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The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Florida native and graduate of the Candler School of Theology at Emory Univerisity, serves as Canon Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis where he works on integrating the life of the Cathedral more deeply with the life of the City. He and his wife Hannah are the exhausted parents of two remarkable boys and two very good dogs. You can find pictures of those dogs on Instagram @thebrokechurchman

Proper 7(B): Speaking in Chaos

Proper 7(B): Speaking in Chaos

Mark 4:35-41

By: The Rev. Ben Day

As a millennial who happens to also be a parish rector, I sometimes feel alone in the storm of our present ecclesial age. Church decline is a frequent topic of conversation in the communities where I congregate with fellow clergy and laity. While I am gratified that many in my peer group are braving that conversation rather than systematically ignoring it (as in ages past), too often the conversation get hijacked by those who want quick and easy answers and is therefore diverted into a conversation about how to recruit millennials to fill our empty church buildings. That is when eyes begin to fix on me, (often the only millennial in the room), as if to say, “you’re a millennial, tell us how to get more of your kind.”

Forget for a moment that objectifying a whole generation into a utilitarian target market which you hope will “save” your church is offensive and may be part of the reason that those we seek avoid us and turn with me to the Gospel lesson of the day.

Jesus is found sleeping on the job while a violent storm rages. At this point in Mark’s gospel, the disciples are not totally sure about Jesus. They have heard his parables and teachings, and they have enough faith in him to get in the boat and head across the sea to Gentile country, but they clearly do not understand the fullness of his power and purpose at this point in the story. So in the midst of a storm on the Sea of Galilee they wake him to seek clarification—essentially asking, “Do you care about us or not?”

Their reported question reveals a faith that acknowledges the fact that Jesus could stop them from perishing if he wills. But it also reveals a faith that is not yet mature enough to know that his role is not to calm every storm, but rather to teach them to trust in spite of the weather. His follow up questions on fear and faith reveal that deeper purpose. And that the word of God (peace and stillness) is essential to how we respond.

To take it a step further, it is the word of God spoken in the chaos of the storm “Peace, be still,” that brings about the transformation and strengthening of their faith, not Jesus’ questions to them. This is revealed in their final remark on the wind’s obedience. Jesus is not simply calming a storm to save their lives, he is revealing his power and authority to them. The storm is part of God’s revealing purpose.

The wise preacher might offer this as a word of hope in the storminess of our common life. In churches where mere survival is the goal, Jesus’ word of peace and stillness may be the calling to discernment rather than easy answers and new marketing strategies. The same can be applied to the many storms of our lives. Whether it be political anxiety, personal crisis, declining health, financial uncertainty, or even literal storms in places traumatized by recent hurricanes, wildfires, or tornadoes. The word of God in the midst of it all is the same peace and stillness.

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. Married to Amanda, they have a son, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. Life is far from dull or boring in the Day family, or at Christ Church.

Proper 6(B): The Kingdom of God and the Sown Seed

Proper 6(B): The Kingdom of God and the Sown Seed

Mark 4:26-34

By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin

One of my favorite books is Good Omens, a humorous take on the apocalypse written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The two best characters are an angel and a demon who have been working for their respective ‘sides’ undercover, posing as humans—for millennia. They share a lot in common and end up occasionally getting together to vent about their bosses, life on Earth, and the peculiarity of humans. They’re astounded by what humans find as miraculous. We see the image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast and praise God for the bountiful blessing. Instead, the angel and demon think humans should be astounded that a seed put in the ground eventually becomes a vine that grows grapes—and it does it every year! That’s a miracle. Existence as we experience it every moment of every day is the miracle. And we humans seem to take it for granted.

In 18th and 19th century England, two new inventions revolutionized agriculture. The first invention came about around 1700. It was called a Seed Drill and it allowed farmers to plant seeds directly into the soil instead of scattering them about and hoping (and praying) for them to grow. This seemingly minor invention improved seed yield and helped mitigate for bad growing seasons. The second invention came in the 1800s when farmers realized they could plant turnips, clover or some other similar crop, and it would replenish the soil significantly better than the traditional method of letting half the land lay fallow every three years. In fact, researchers estimate that between 1480 and 1700 about 1 in 4 growing years were considered “bad,” and 1 in 5 were considered “catastrophically bad.” Jumping from such a low yield (and at the mercy of really bad growing seasons) to a higher yield and more diverse, predictable crop growth made many farmers incredibly wealthy. It ushered in a new era of wealth and prosperity in England.

We live in the shadow of those inventions that helped mitigate poor growing seasons and our latest technology has only added to our agriculture production. In fact, a few years ago, the American Midwest experienced a near record drought and thousands of acres yielded poor returns. Yet, I still went to the grocery store and bought corn, strawberries, apples, etc. Perhaps I paid an extra dollar or so, but I don’t remember “feeling” the result of the drought. For most of us in America, we don’t worry about the weather affecting our food supply. In a way, we don’t need faith in order to eat. We thank God for our food, but do we really feel that our sustenance is provided by God? I remember an episode of the Simpsons when they asked Bart to bless the meal and he said, “Dear God, we paid for all this food, so thanks for nothing!” Does a part of us tend to think that way, even if we don’t consciously admit it?

In the Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as someone who scatters seed on the ground, then anxiously watches for the seed to grow. The text says the farmer got up night and day, monitoring the status of the crops. Finally, after anxiously watching the crops grow into plants and come to fruition, the farmer grabs the sickle because the harvest time has come. This all raises the question: How do we relate to this farmer when most of us live so disconnected from the stress of possible food insecurity? Jesus is describing a scenario where someone with land and seeds and seeming resources still lives exposed to the whims of the elements. And what are we to make of the fact that Jesus tells this parable to explain the kingdom of God?

Perhaps we are the fickle crops planted by the triune God, anxiously hoping and praying that we will grow? I often feel blown about by the whims of the elements of daily life, distracted or intentionally avoiding that which will make me grow.

The second agricultural parable explaining the kingdom of God has to do with the mustard seed. It’s this tiny thing that is planted in the ground, watered and somehow becomes a large plant. (I’m not going to address the scientific accuracy of the parables claims of a mustard seed being the smallest and then becoming extremely large. I feel that distracts from the point of the parable.) This reminds me of the quotation from Good Omens about the daily miracles that we fail to notice. What habits and practices will form us into a people who recognizes the micro-miracles of daily life? Not just a ‘spend less time on Facebook’ or ‘stop and smell the roses’, although those are part of it, rather a shift in how we interact with the world. I think consistently gathering with other Christians in order to faithfully worship God is formative. As an Episcopal priest, I would recommend weekly Eucharist as formation in the kingdom of God.

The Gospel passage gives us two parables on the Kingdom of God. Taken together, these parables encourage us to faithfully and continually grow while becoming a people who sees the micro-miracles in everyday life. This involves some intentionality and work on our part. For example, I can’t just whine about my poor prayer life (which it is), I have to take agency and designate an extra few minutes each morning to prayer. It also involves intentionally noticing the flowering world around us and praising God. It involves a deep seated thanks to God for the profound and bountiful blessings of this life! These are practices that must be continually cultivated over the course of our Christian lives. Amen.

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The Rev. Jim Dahlin

The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.

Proper 5(B): A Terrible Confusion

Proper 5(B): A Terrible Confusion

Mark 3:20-35

By: Jerrod McCormack

Some of the greatest discoveries in human history have been due to a terrible confusion or a happy accident. Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered penicillin, only did so because his scientific practice left a lot to be desired. According to Fleming, he left some petri dishes next to an open window and they became contaminated with mold spores. When he looked closely at the petri dish he discovered that the bacteria nearest to the mold spores were actually dying. Alexander Fleming once said, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”[1]

Imagine how different the 20th century might have looked if, on that morning when Alexander Fleming walked into his lab and discovered the contaminated petri dishes he did what most people do with moldy dishes and just set about cleaning up what appeared to be a failed experiment. It would have been an absolute travesty. People would have gone on dying just as they had been and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, Fleming took the time to look closely and examine what was happening in those petri dishes and discovered a treatment that would cure a number of bacterial infections. We hear an equally confusing and exciting story in this Gospel lesson.

Jesus has gone home and the people there are very confused about who he is. Mark records that his family is concerned and the scribes coming down from Jerusalem describe him as being possessed by a demon. Their concern is so great that Jesus’ family decides to stage an intervention. They go out and, according to Mark, are trying to “restrain him.” Without a doubt, Jesus’ family believes that what they are doing is in his best interest; after all, they’re convinced that he has lost his mind. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible indicates that “[this intervention] is surely one that deeply misconstrues Jesus’ ministry and actions.”[2] It is this “misconstrued moment” that is picked up on and expanded by the scribes. The scribes soon begin to describe Jesus’ ministry as the work of Satan and decry Jesus as possessed by a demon. They say that he casts out demons by the ruler of demons.

At the suggestion that he is possessed, Jesus questions whether a house that is divided against itself could possibly stand. As we look around at the world today, we have all kinds of reasons to divide ourselves against each other. We are pretty different from one another. We come in a multitude of colors, a multitude of political ideologies, and a multitude of sexual orientations and gender identities. We are decidedly different from one another. But if we look deeper than all of those things, we might discover that our neighbors and our enemies are in fact more like us than we might imagine. We all struggle in this life. I won’t soon forget the first time that I heard it said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle that you know nothing about.” This is what it means to be deeply human: we all struggle, but at the core of each of us is a part that longs for understanding, acceptance and love. We are part of a truth that is deeper than every single division that exists.

We have to be careful when we cast dispersion upon the work of others in the world. Jesus warns those who have labeled him as possessed that there is forgiveness for everything under the sun except for one who ‘blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.’ This is a serious call for us to be careful when we declare something to be contrary to God. The scribes saw Jesus casting out demons and determined that it had to be the work of the devil and not the work of God. Jesus warns them that this is the one thing that God won’t forgive.

We should be careful when we look at others who claim to be doing God’s work in the world. Many times, both liberals and conservatives are much too quick to judge each other’s work as invalid. I might push this even further and suggest that as Christians, we are far too quick to judge the work of God in other religions and cultures to be the work of the devil. But what if it isn’t? What if God has chosen to reveal Godself in a multitude of ways to a multitude of people? Perhaps, this text is calling us to be more open to a God who chooses to act and reveal Godself in many ways.

It isn’t easy to open ourselves up to the fact that God might act in the world in ways that we don’t understand or through people we might not even like, but the Christian tradition is full of amazing stories of men and women who found God at work in strange and perhaps unexpected places. I grew up listening to people say, “God works in mysterious ways.” That line probably comes from a poem written by William Cowper, an 18th Century English poet. This is what he wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will. [3]

I didn’t know the source of that phrase until much later, but this idea that God calls and leads into places that surprise and might confuse doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Jesus goes on in this passage to say, “Who are my mother and my brothers and sisters? They are the ones who do God’s will.” It might seem at first a hefty insult to Jesus’s own family. However, when we consider that Jesus comes into the world in the stillness of a manger born to a young woman who in her own moment of profound faith says yes to the will of God. Perhaps, Jesus saying that his mother and brothers and sisters are the ones who do God’s will isn’t an insult as much as a new way of looking at the world. God’s new family is one that transcends familial relationships. We become a family of those who live by the Spirit and who follow the Spirit into unexpected places.

[1] Alexander Fleming (1881–1955): Discoverer of penicillin: Singapore Medical Journal  2015 Jul; 56(7): 366–367. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4520913/

[2] The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN. 2003: 1811.

[3] Poem Hunter: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/god-moves-in-a-mysterious-way/

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Jerrod McCormack

Jerrod McCormack is a postulant for holy orders in the Diocese of Calgary. He works as a Spiritual Care Practitioner for the Alberta Health Service and is the Manager of the bookstore at St. Mary’s University. He earned an A.Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, a B.Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tennessee, and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is married to Ali and in their spare time they love to drive through the Rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

Proper 4(B): The Law of Grace

Proper 4(B): The Law of Grace

Mark 2:23-3:6

By: The Rev. Lauren Carlson

In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott writes, “There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”

This story has stuck with me since I first read it several years ago. In many ways, it seems to go hand in hand with the theme of “hardness of hearts” I see playing throughout the gospel of Mark.[1]You can certainly find this expression in other places of scripture, but I find it interesting how many times this phrase can be found in Mark alone. It seems that this is the way Jesus often describes the people when he is frustrated or disappointed with their actions and understanding. It is as though they have written the law on their hearts, and yet the grace of it has not fallen inside yet. They see the miracles, but the profound truth has not reached to the depth of their being. In each situation, this hardness of heart prevents the people from living into the fullness of relationship to which they are called to live, with one another and with God.

In our gospel reading for day we hear in 3:5, “[Jesus] grieved at their hardness of heart,” referring to the Pharisees who would rather let a man continue suffering than heal him on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are challenging Jesus on his adherence (or lack thereof) to the law about working on the Sabbath, which raises two questions for me: 1) What is the purpose of law? and 2) What is the purpose of the Sabbath?

  • When God gives laws, it is not for the purpose of individual piety. Law is not for the sake of having a checklist of righteousness. Rather, the purpose of law is to be in right relationship with neighbor and with God. Jesus clarifies this to the Pharisees when challenged on which is the greatest commandment. He says that it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. On this hangs ALL THE LAW and the prophets. In other words, if we are loving God and loving our neighbor, these things will fall into place. This is the purpose of the law: to live in loving relationship.
  • “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”[2] Just like all other laws, this Sabbath-keeping law is for wellbeing in community and not for self-righteous piety. Sabbath is something we It is about rest and healing so that we can be refreshed and renewed for this work of loving God and loving our neighbor. Yes, loving can be work because we are broken and essentially just suck at this sometimes. But it is the most worthwhile work we can do! Sabbath rest is a gift from God; a time to be aware of the abundance of love and grace that God is constantly pouring into us, so that we can continue that work. But it is NOT meant to be at the detriment of another. How can one feel filled by God’s love while watching another continue in suffering?

What might this self-righteous (even self-serving?) sense of law and Sabbath look like in your congregation? Where are you seeing signs of hardened hearts? How can you remind them of the fact that good news is actually meant to be good news?

When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath or of the law.  When our hearts are hardened, we stop seeing the freedom and healing of another as important. When our hearts are hardened, we are blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world. So perhaps we too, like the Pharisees and disciples and saints who have gone before us, have hardened hearts. But the truth is that in spite of (or even in light of) our hardened hearts, eventually they will crack wide open and words of grace and love and gentleness will fill them and heal them again. Because God’s acts of grace and love and healing not only continue on the Sabbath, they are essential to the Sabbath.

  

[1] Mark 6:52, 8:17, 10:5 are a few examples

[2] Mark 2:27

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The Rev. Lauren Carlson

The Rev. Lauren Carlson is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) currently serving in a call with her husband, Paul, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Morganton, North Carolina. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Appalachian State University in 2004, served a year of Young Adults in Global Mission through the ELCA in Edinburgh Scotland, and then headed to Dubuque, Iowa where she earned her Masters of Divinity at Wartburg Theological Seminary. If ministry were not enough to keep her busy, her two young, spirited children are! In her “spare time” she enjoys catching up with friends, breathing fresh air, continuing her involvement with camping ministry, and brewing beer (and has great dreams of learning to play guitar, sew, and actually conquer her reading list!)