Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!

Easter Vigil: It’s All a Joke!

Mark 16:1-8

By: Kristen Leigh Southworth

There’s a Korean joke that asks, “What noise does a toaster make?” The answer is the Korean word for bread. Hilarious, right? How about this one from Japan: “There is a mandarin orange on an aluminum can.” ROFL? No?

Humor doesn’t translate very well across languages and cultures. Comedy is grounded in breaking expectations, so in order to even pick up on the fact that something funny is happening, you have to have a pretty good handle on the cultural assumptions and linguistic norms of a given context. You need to know what is expected in order to recognize when something unexpected has occurred.

Many people, Christians especially, are surprised to learn that the Bible—and Gospels in particular—are actually filled with humor, wit, irony, satire, and even jokes. I had a professor in seminary who said that most of Jesus’ parables would have been hilarious to their ancient hearers, but since we have lost so much of the context, most of the time, we just don’t get it.

Christians in general also have a tendency to take the Bible very seriously…. perhaps a little too seriously. Whether we are part of sola Scriptura traditions that interpret the Bible literally, or liturgical traditions that parade heavily-ornamented Gospel books around during worship, most Christians tend to approach the Bible with an attitude of solemnity, and an expectation for rational, moral instruction. There is nothing wrong with a little reverence, but when we approach Scripture with these kinds of expectations, we potentially miss out on important layers of meaning in the text that are communicated through its creativity and its sense of humor.

Mark’s resurrection story is probably my favorite example of this. Perhaps no story in the Bible is approached by Christians with more seriousness than Jesus’ resurrection, since our entire faith hinges on it. People have been arguing for two millennia about whether to take this story seriously or not. Mark’s version of the story is the earliest, with many scholars dating the text to about 40 years after the events it describes, so one might expect it to be taken the most seriously out of all the Gospel accounts.

But many people have come to think of Mark’s resurrection story as something like a “first draft” –it provides basic information, but it seems to end rather abruptly, with nobody having seen the resurrected Jesus and nobody spreading the good news. The last verse in our excerpt today is the original ending of Mark; verses 8b and 9-20 are not in the original manuscripts, and they are understood to have been added much later since neither Origen nor Clement of Alexandria seem to have any knowledge of them.

Most Christians deal with this seemingly incoherent conclusion by either ignoring Mark’s account entirely or by drawing from Matthew, Luke, and John to fill in the rest of the details. However, I think that Mark’s version of the resurrection is the most compelling by far, and that we must take it on its own terms, and in its original format. Besides, otherwise we miss the joke.

In the very first chapter of Mark, we read about Jesus healing a leper. Afterwards, he sternly warns the man, saying, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” But the man goes out and begins to proclaim it freely (Mark 1:40-45.) A few chapters later, Jesus raises the daughter of a synagogue leader from the dead, but strictly orders them that no one should know about it (Mark 5:43.) Nevertheless, the news of Jesus and his healing powers spreads, and a couple of chapters later, the crowd brings him a man who is deaf and mute. Jesus pulls him away from the crowd to heal him, and then tells everyone gathered not to say anything about it. But the text says that “the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it” (Mark 7:36.)

At the end of the book, the women go to the tomb after Jesus’ death to offer him a proper burial, only to find an empty tomb, and a man sitting there dressed in white. He instructs them to go and tell everyone what they have seen: that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

So what do they do? They run away and say nothing to anyone.

Get it? They finally listened to Jesus! I think it’s hilarious.

Especially when you consider the fact that the Gospel of Mark was written during a time when the first generation of disciples and eyewitnesses to the mission of Jesus had recently died or been killed, it is all the more remarkable that the text does not depict them in a more honorable light, as the mighty heroes of the one, true, pure faith. Instead, they are shown to be a bumbling group of fearful and incompetent witnesses, who always did the exact opposite of what Jesus told them to do, all the way up until the very end when they were finally supposed to do the opposite, at which point they turn around and finally follow the original instruction.

The depiction of Jesus’ original followers is indeed very funny, but its function is not merely comedic. Through this humor we are offered a resurrection story that demands our presence and participation. The Gospel of Mark is not about recounting the facts of something that happened in a distant time and place. And it’s not about glorifying people from the past, or comparing our experiences to theirs. Later accounts of the resurrection would fill in some of the post-resurrection details with stories of how it happened to Mary, and Peter, and John, and Thomas. Those stories seem to offer us a more satisfying conclusion by giving us something clear that we can hang our hats on. But they also maintain a kind of distance between ourselves and the resurrection reality. Those other people from the past, they had these miraculous encounters with Jesus after his death, and that’s what this is all about.

The Gospel of Mark does not give us the option of making Jesus’ story into a story about the past, or the story of other people. Its ending requires us to show up and fill in the rest ourselves. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, it leaves it up to the reader what will happen next. Will the women eventually go and tell the rest of the disciples about what they have seen and heard? Will the disciples listen and go to Galilee? Will they see Jesus there? Will you? If you want to know the end of the story, you have to live it yourself.

Mark’s original resurrection story is not simply a first draft. It is a literary masterpiece that calls forth new generations of Christians continually to take up their crosses and resume the mission of Jesus. The foibles and failures of the previous generation of disciples become our call to action. Instead of simply being asked to simply respect the heroes of the past, we are invited to take their place, to succeed where they failed, to pick up their slack, to seek the resurrected Jesus in our own lives in new and unexpected ways and to proclaim the good news of his resurrection based on our own experiences, not simply by reporting the vicarious witness of others.

Mark’s story leads us to the threshold of faith and then leaves us to stand there, asking ourselves whether we will cross. Will a new generation of disciples go and tell what they have seen and heard? Will they open themselves to encountering the resurrected Jesus? Will you?

 

kristenlsouthworth
Kristen Leigh Southworth

Kristen Leigh Southworth is a freelance writer, theologian, and indie folk singer-songwriter with a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where she studied cultural theology, Biblical interpretation, theological aesthetics, and ecumenical worship. She is currently living in Asheboro, North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer, musician, and teacher.

 

Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly

Palm Sunday (B): Gradually and Then Suddenly

Mark 14:1-15:14

By: The Rev. Kim Jenne

One of my guilty pleasures is watching movies about some type of earth-ending event, movies like Armageddon (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009), and San Andreas (2015). I love how most of these movies start calmly, pleasantly even, with everything just fine. The characters might even be in a celebratory mood—a new romance has blossomed, an important, high-profile job has begun and then, suddenly, things turn catastrophic. Life as they know it has ended. In a movie, this quick turn from good to bad is expected. It is part of the Hollywood formula. To go from a parade to an execution order and tortured death in the span of 45 minutes in worship, however, is almost too much for a congregation to handle. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “boy, that escalated quickly.”

But, did it really? Mark’s Gospel, our text for Year B, is known for its quick-tempo; but reading along throughout Lent, we have watched the rising escalation between Jesus and the religious authorities since the scripture’s abrupt beginning. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s dialogue in The Sun Also Rises:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

Gradually and then suddenly. Mark’s Gospel starts off with a bang—healings, exorcisms, preaching with authority, and growing crowds drawn to Jesus, but we barely get out of the second chapter before the scribes began to question among themselves who this man from Nazareth thinks he is (2:6-7.) Gradually and then suddenly.

The arrival of Palm/Passion Sunday each year is the source of liturgical infighting among worship teams. There are camps that wonder why we can’t spend the whole Sunday focused on the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why can’t we wave our palms and enjoy Jesus getting “his due” for once before we head into Holy Week and the cross? There are other camps that would prefer to skip over the palm parade and spend the Sunday firmly rooted in the Passion as in this excerpt. Those in this camp argue that practically one-third of Mark is taken up with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life,

Picture1
From The Lion Illustrated Bible for Children (2007). Christina Balit, illustrator.

the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death. Only 11 verses tell of his triumphal entry into the city of David. Still others feel we must compromise and squeeze it all in—start with joy and celebration at the gates of Jerusalem and move to grief and despair as the tomb is sealed. We should start of gradually with pomp and circumstance and then arrive suddenly at the tragic end of Jesus’ ministry. Liturgical whiplash be damned. Gradually and then suddenly, that’s how the end of our brief encounter with the God-of-us.

In my childhood Bible, I remember the illustration from the palm parade—it looked like there were thousands lining the streets welcoming Jesus, hanging out windows and up trees, it looked like an ancient version of the ticker-tape parade. My current favorite children’s illustration looks nothing like my childhood memory. This Jesus, in Christina Balit’s illustrated world, is wrapped tightly in his robe, bound tightly for death upon the colt, face drawn as in a death mask. Regardless of how Jesus looked upon his entry, viewed through the lens of Empire, the procession must have certainly looked foolish to Rome.

It may be helpful to congregations to temper their palm pageants, often led by the children of the church, with the reminder that there were likely two processions in Jerusalem. In one, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt, with no weapons and no army. There was simply singing, celebration, a quick visit to the Temple, and then it was all over (at least in Mark’s account.) In the other procession, Pilate rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse accompanied by legions of Roman soldiers with all the pomp and ceremony of an Imperial authority figure. Today’s Passion reading is a counter-narrative to the Palm Sunday reading and intensifies the dialectic between the insider/outsider perspectives.

Perhaps the “let’s have it all” camp has it right. One approach to Passion Sunday is to demonstrate for the modern disciple how Jesus’ earthly ministry ended gradually and then suddenly once Passover weekend in Jerusalem. With such a long reading, it is helpful to break it up in vignettes or through a dramatic reading because Mark covers a lot of ground in the two chapters selected for the appointed Sunday. Mark spends time preparing Jesus for his burial through the anointing at Bethany and the quiet, intimate Passover dinner with his disciples. He is quickly betrayed by those he loved and turned over to the religious authorities. In short order, he is handed to Pilate, who, washing his hands of the mess, allows the crowds, hungry for blood, to issue the ultimate and final verdict. It makes one wonder, how short are people’s memories? Had they already forgotten the recent parade where they welcomed and called on him to “save them now” (the basic meaning of Hosanna)? Were they so naïve that they easily believed the religious leaders? Mark is playing all the time with the notion of who is on the inside, who is on the outside. The crowds move from inside to outside, the disciples move in and out of this dance repeatedly.

And, yet, in the last week of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he continued to challenge all the various forms of human Empire. Instead of a show of wealth, power and brute force, he revealed a way of being and of living together that was in complete contrast. Instead, revealing the Reign of God through giving, community, and simplicity. This Sunday’s readings allow pastors to remind their people of this contrast. A skilled preacher will quickly move the congregation from the ways in which we have witnessed, over the past 40 days, how Jesus chose not to flee from the pain of the world, but to head straight into those places in the world that frighten us. How Jesus challenged the Empire at every turn of his ministry. The last week of his life is no different.

Given the reality is that most of our congregation will fail to experience the fullness of Holy Week, we can allow Mark’s Passion narrative to help our Sunday morning crowd experience the fullness of the Jesus’ earthly ministry. For some of our flock, they have never allowed ourselves to spend any amount of time thinking about the sacrificial love of God for each one of us. They jump from the Palm parade to Easter brunch without even a glance at the events that lead to resurrection. Embracing the fullness of the passion will allow churchgoers to sit with Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion for a time before we rush to the tomb.

Before we get to Resurrection Sunday, before we put on our new clothes, before we welcome new lives into the baptismal covenant and sing our way to the Holy Table, to truly experience love, we must face suffering, trusting that love is always stronger than fear, that hope is stronger than despair and that life is stronger than death. For some of us, that witness and revelation, comes upon us gradually and then suddenly during Holy Week. We realize gradually and then suddenly that on the other side of that suffering, we can stand together as witnesses to the greatest love of all, God’s love for each one of us born upon that cross in Christ Jesus.

KimJenne_2017
The Rev. Kim Jenne

The Rev. Kim Jenne is the Director of Connectional Ministries for the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The Office of Connectional Ministries is responsible for Annual Conference, Boundaries, Communications, Discipleship Ministries, Safe Sanctuaries, and Leadership Development through the Nominations Committee. Before her current appointment, Kim served as senior pastor of Webster Hills UMC in St. Louis. She is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, loves NASA and is sorely disappointed we aren’t already living on Mars. She considers herself an inconsistent but persistent disciple of Jesus Christ.

 

 

Lent 2(B): Walking in My Neighbor’s Shoes

Lent 2(B): Walking in My Neighbor’s Shoes

Mark 8:31-38

By: The Rev. David Clifford

Mark 8:31-38, English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

There are moments in life that are very brief, yet remain with us for a very long time—maybe even forever. As a parent, most of these moments in my own life revolve around my children. I have found memories of each of my three children trying on various versions of my shoes and attempting to walk around the house in them like daddy. I don’t know what it is about these particular memories, but they continue to bring me joy, and I pray they always do.

I consider myself a fairly empathic person. I am able to pick up on emotional cues fairly easily from the people around me. Sometimes, I understand these cues well and at other times I struggle to know what are my feelings and what are the feelings of the people around me. In many ways, it is as if I am wearing the various shoes of the people around me, attempting to walk around the room as they do.

In many regards this helps a great deal in my own personal ministry. I think I am able to understand the people around me (as much as is possible.) This helps me to minister with the various individuals that make up my congregation given all their differences of personalities, histories, opinions, and beliefs. The more I am involved in ministry leadership, the more I am learning the strength of my empathy.

However, I must constantly make sure I am “trying on” all of the respective shoes that may come through my congregation. I cannot allow myself to throw off a pair of shoes because they are uncomfortable or difficult to walk in. In fact, I would argue that the more uncomfortable the shoes are for me to walk in, the longer I should try and walk with them on. This allows a greater understanding of the other I may struggle to understand. The easier it is to be empathic, the less likely I probably need to use that particular skill in the relationship.

I say all of this with this week’s lectionary text in mind because I often find myself wearing Jesus’ shoes and aligning myself with Jesus when I read this particular scripture. However, it’s easier for me to walk in Jesus’ shoes (at least for this particular scripture) than it is for me to walk in Peter’s shoes. We have all experienced times when even our best friends seem to suggest or even lead us down paths in our lives that are the opposite of what God wants for us. This is Jesus’ experience. As he shares the difficult path ahead of him, Peter steps in to tell Jesus, “Surely, that’s not what God wants for you.”

The path of Christ is hard. Jesus tells us that in order to follow him, we must deny ourselves. We must take up our cross daily. Many of us believe that the difficulty and struggles of our lives are our cross. There are many times when both we and the people around us want our path to be easier. However, I don’t think this is exactly what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus knew the path God was leading for him. Jesus knew the suffering and pain that was to come. Jesus continually attempts to point this out to his followers and to Peter. Yet, Peter did not like this path. Jesus’ disciples and those following his ministry believe him to be the Messiah. I think for many of them this meant that Jesus would restore God’s people, freeing them from the rule of Rome. But this would not be the case. Jesus would die to Rome.

The Gospel Transformation Bible points out in its notes that in this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times (8:31, 9:31, 10:32-34.) Each of these three predictions is followed by instruction and teaching on the cost and nature of discipleship (8:34-37; 9:35-50; 10:35-44.)

In many ways Jesus is teaching us that to follow him as our Messiah means to give up and “die” to the vary ways in which we imagine the Messiah saving us. The more and more shoes I find myself wearing as I attempt to understand the various different people around me is teaching me a very valuable lesson: we must allow Jesus to be who Jesus is. We cannot expect Jesus to come to people only with our own biases and wearing our own shoes. I fully believe that Jesus loves each of us no matter what our shoes look like. And I praise God for that.

Yet, if we are honest, I believe most of us would be like Peter. We would want to stand up and fight for Jesus. In fact, many in the church do this today. Depending on our preconceived notion of Jesus, we want to fight those that have another notion of Jesus because our notion must be right! If you are at all like me, you may struggle to understand how in the world Jesus could love some of the people you come across each day.

But I believe in those very moments, we are standing firmly in Peter’s shoes. It is in those moments that we are asking Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah than he is. It is in those moments that we expect Jesus to come and destroy our enemies, because surely, they are the enemies of God. And, it is in those moments that Jesus rebukes us and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

This scripture reminds us that Jesus is a radically different kind of Messiah than we may imagine. This Messiah wears a different kind of shoes, to follow the metaphor. However, this is precisely the kind of Messiah we need. Jesus is a Messiah that loves and dies for each of us. A Messiah that is able to teach us with his own life, death, and resurrection what it truly means to live a life of discipleship. A life in which we die to self in order to recognize the Messiah for who He truly is. A life in which we take off on own shoes in order to wear the shoes of those around us—constantly pointing them to love of Christ.

 

Picture1
The Rev. David Clifford

The Rev. David Clifford is the Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, Texas. David is a graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. David is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) He lives in Lubbock with his wife and three children, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading.

1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps

1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps

Mark 1:9-15

By:  The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

“You’ve taken your first steps into a much larger world!”  -Obi Wan Kenobi

These are the words spoken by the wise old Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi to a young Luke Skywalker after the latter’s first Jedi training session in Star Wars (or, as time has forced us to call it, Episode IV or A New Hope). Luke, stretching out with his feelings and trusting his instincts, has just successfully used his lightsaber to ward off several shots from a droid while unable to see a thing. Obi Wan congratulates him. This is a huge moment for Luke, one that merits some sort of celebration. Yet there is no time for celebrating Luke’s accomplishment in this first Jedi training, instead he and Obi Wan must rescue Princess Leia, and later Luke must continue his training on his own after his mentor is defeated by Darth Vader (SPOILER ALERT!) This moment, though, is where it begins. These are Luke’s first steps.

Moments such as these are exciting and filled with so much promise. They are start of something new and exciting, yet also quite scary. We have such moments in the Church, of course. We call them baptism, confirmation, and ordination. These may seem like self-contained events, but they are merely the first steps into a much larger world. Our lectionary today places Jesus in the moments after one such event.

We are back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a place we found ourselves on January 7 when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. On that day we ended the Gospel passage with those beautiful words from God, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we get the aftermath of that event.

What happens once Jesus is baptized? He doesn’t stop to celebrate or bask in his accomplishment. Like Luke, he is thrown into his call without warning, immediately driven out into the wilderness. That word, ‘immediately,’ is one of Mark’s favorite words. In Greek it’s eutheos, meaning straightway, forthwith, or instantly. Clearly, there is no time to bask in the glory of Jesus’ baptism. Instead, in his first moments of earthly ministry, he is whisked away into the wilderness, into an unknown and fearful world.

The story is told of a seminary student who was doing her clinical pastoral education, which is the piece of every clergy person’s education that requires one to serve as a chaplain for at least a summer. This student chose to do her work in prison ministry. She arrived on her first day, received her badge and a quick rundown of the layout of her facility, was introduced to her supervisor and fellow chaplains, and was then immediately told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’ No warm-up or week of orientation; no, just dropped into the middle of the wilderness.

Jesus, likewise, is dropped into the wilderness.  Here he is faced with all sorts of temptations; all sorts of evils. The text says he is tempted by Satan, which is simply a Hebrew word for ‘adversary,’ and that he is out there for 40 days, again a Hebrew expression for a long period of time, not necessarily to be taken literally. Still, what a dreadful situation! Here is Jesus, right after this great, joyful, momentous occasion, with no prior ministerial experience that we know of, having to go into a frightening circumstance that, I suspect, none of us would willingly enter into ourselves. How does he do it?

He does it because the Spirit is the one that drives him to it. The very same Spirit that descended upon him as he came out of the water, the very Spirit that spoke the voice of God and called him beloved, is the Spirit that sends him into the wilderness.

Brothers and sisters, in the same way, our baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations, while joyful, celebratory occasions, were not the end, but the beginning. In the same way, the same Spirit that descended upon us at our baptisms, or at our confirmations or ordinations—the Spirit that has sealed us and marked us as Christ’s own forever—has sent us out into a world that is, quite honestly, very, very frightening. We, like Jesus, have taken our first steps into this larger, frightening world, and God has told us the same thing that that prison chaplain was told: ‘OK, go do ministry!’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, when I REALLY think about that, it seems too big, too much. How? How can I, how can we, possibly do this?

I suspect Jesus thought the same thing out there in the wilderness. Yet the Scripture tells us that the angels waited on him, or as Greek scholar Preston Epps translates it, they “ministered” to him. What a beautiful image! The angels surrounded Jesus, lifting him up and supporting him. The Good News here is that he was not alone.  Jesus did not embark on his earthly ministry totally on his own, and neither do we.

God’s angels—those messengers who help bring us the Good News—are all around us. If our eyes are opened we will see them, those who minister to us so that we may minister to others. Our priests, families, spiritual directors, therapists, teachers, coaches, and so many others are there to support us as those angels supported Jesus. Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ may seem like a monumental task; to be sure, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching love to those who have never heard such a thing, and spreading the word that the Kingdom of God has come near are by no means easy endeavors. Nevertheless, we are reminded this day that such holy work is never done alone. After his death, Obi Wan continued to guide Luke, and he and his friends Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2 and others, managed to defeat the evil Galactic Empire. At no point, though, did they do it alone. In the same way, we are never alone once we take those first steps.

This season of Lent is a time to prayerfully remind ourselves of the call that God has issued to each of us, a call that we will reaffirm with the neophytes—the newly baptized—at that Great Vigil of Easter. The Spirit has blessed each of you and called you beloved in your baptisms, your confirmations, and your ordinations, and the Spirit is driving you out into the wilderness of this world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. It may seem daunting, but we have one another to minister to us and with us. We will face whatever comes; after all, these are merely our first steps.

 

1926695_659468218834_7037241726326406463_n
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell

The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.

Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop

Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop

Mark 9:2-9

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

I once served as a hospital chaplain for a year. I was often rendered speechless by the pain I saw, and many times, silent accompaniment was what my patients and their families needed. Other times, I was called on to offer a word of hope.

Some of the most difficult cases were there was no clear happy ending. This could be because of a sudden crisis, or because of chronic pain or a bad diagnosis. In Atlanta, where I served, I was often tasked with offering hope to patients who were deeply religious, but were having a hard time seeing God’s presence in their lives at a particular moment. They sometimes called on me to help.

In time, I learned that often, the words of hope that patients wanted so desperately were not my words, but their own. It was my role as chaplain to be something of a midwife for hope; I was called only to ask the right questions.

Once, as I sat at the bedside of a patient, he described his deep faith but wondered if now God had abandoned him, because his health was failing. I assured him that God is not so cruel as to punish people by making them sick, nor do I believe that God abandoned him.

With tears in his eyes he said, “But I feel like God has left me. Has God left me?”

“Of course not,” I say, gripping his hand. “Can you tell me about the times in the past that you’ve felt God’s presence before?”

Nearly very time I had similar conversations, the results were always the same: the person would suddenly, even through tears, launch into praise as they narrated time and time again how God had been with them, about what they viewed as miracles — proof positive to them that their faith in God was well placed. They described mountaintop experiences.

“Do you believe that same God is still around today?” I asked this man gently.
“Of course! God is the same yesterday, and today, and forever!”

“Then I think that God is most certainly with you now as then.”

With that, he smiled and slept.

When we feel like God has abandoned us, it’s the times when our faith felt sure that can call us back.

In today’s Gospel, we venture with Jesus up to literal the mountain top. Peter, James, and John are there. They have come, they think, to pray. We don’t know how long they were there, but Luke does tell us: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep…” Perhaps they waited and prayed for awhile, and night fell.

But then. Then, suddenly, everything changed.

Luke tells us that “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” Suddenly, before their eyes, Jesus is transformed, his clothes radiating with a dazzling white, radiating with all the glory of heaven. Moses and Elijah appear at his side, and there he is — the Son of God, shining in glory, flanked by Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. All is as it should be in that one shining moment. The disciples must have been floored. They must have imagined that this is why Jesus called them — to see this very moment.

I admit that I’ve often both related to and chuckled at Peter in this story. He reacts pretty practically, actually: “Let’s build something.” Let’s fix it. Let’s build shelters for all three of you. Depending on the time of year, this could have been very practical — if it was very hot or cold. Peter assumes, wrongly, that they are going to stay here. I can’t blame him. This miracle — this revelation — surely this was the ultimate revelation, right?

I imagine that they, at the very least, wanted to tell someone about all this, but Luke says that in those days, they kept quiet. Matthew adds a little more depth to the story; Jesus says to them on their way down the mountain: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line always gives me chills. This isn’t it. That wasn’t all. There’s more. And what comes next will be painful.

You see, they thought this was the end of the story. They thought this shining moment was the pinnacle of everything. But they hoped far too small. Because our God is not only or not even primarily found in those moments shining on the mountaintop when everything seems clear and where our faith seems certain. If that were the case, we should hope for more mountaintops and direct revelations.

Our God is found, most commonly, when things are at their worst. In the cross, we see that Christ is ever-present in human suffering. Certainly, we all marvel at mountaintop moments, moments when our faith seems sure and our call seems certain. But if you think that God is amazing because Jesus’ clothing is sparkling — you just wait until God takes what is dead and makes it new again.

The Transfiguration, the mountaintop, is not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. It will be the confirmation that the disciples think back to when things get hard. When things seem impossible. When things seem dead and irreconcilable. I imagine that, when the disciples were locked in the upper room after Jesus was killed on the cross, when all hope seemed lost, that there were whispers among James and John and Peter about the Transfiguration. “Remember?” they whispered to each other. “That was real. I saw it too.” The Transfiguration, I imagine, just maybe offered a glimmer of hope that this wasn’t the end.

“Remember?” I imagine Peter whispering. “Maybe… just maybe… maybe it’s not over.” And that is what mountaintop experiences will do for us — those shining moments aren’t extinguished easily. They give us hope in dark times.

So let’s look around and take this mountaintop moment in. Jesus is before us, transfigured, with the law and the prophets at his side. God speaks about him from the sky and tells us to listen to him. For one shining moment, we get proof beyond all doubt that we are following the right guy — that this Jesus isn’t just a great rabbi — he’s God made flesh, and he’s our only hope.

Remember the mountaintop moments in your life, too — times when it feels like God is right there and when your purpose seems so clear. Mark them, remember them, bless them. Because mountaintop moments like the Transfiguration aren’t for God’s benefit, they’re for ours. So that we can be sure that we are on the right path. So that we can know that even if the path leads to death, take heart, because even death leads to resurrection. And next week, as if on cue, the challenge of Lent begins, and we will venture even deeper into God’s unfailing grace.

And when Lent gets into full swing, let’s remember the alleluias today even as we anticipate the much larger alleluias of Easter. When Lent drags on, let’s whisper to each other, “Remember?” Let us look around on the mountaintop, so that we can remember that God, made flesh and true to his Word, is certainly, certainly still with us. Amen.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-2-34-59-pm
The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

 

 

 

 

5th Sunday after Epiphany (B): Stay in Your Lane

5th Sunday after Epiphany (B): Stay In Your Lane

Mark 1:29-39

Jay Butler

I am a huge sports fan. I like some sports more than others, but I at least try to keep my finger on the pulse of all of them. In fact, one of my strongest memories growing up was to be an anchor on SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship program. I imagined cracking jokes and delivering awesome sports highlights alongside Dan Patrick, Linda Cohn, and the late Stuart Scott. One of the conundrums with sports news is that while it is meant to inform, it is also meant to entertain. That is why you see big stars like LeBron James or Tom Brady always discussed. Unfortunately, one of the people that is always talked about in sports news is Lavar Ball.

Lavar Ball is the father of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball. He is loud, opinionated, and flat out rude, if I say so myself. One of my least favorite interviews I heard from him took place on Fox Sports 1’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd. When he was naturally arguing and speaking over the host Cowherd, co-host Kristine Leahy tried to interject with her comments. Ball, without even turning his head to address her, told her to “stay in your lane.” He tried to silence her with one command. That is the quintessential thought process of a bully, or someone who has an unhealthy view of power. That mentality has oppressed numerous people groups for millennia. But can that phrase be redeemed in any way possible? How can Jesus empower us when we feel “stuck in our lane?”

This week’s Gospel text focuses on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Already in Mark 1, Jesus has been very busy. He’s been baptized, tempted, selected His first apostles, and healed a man with an unclean spirit at the synagogue in Capernaum. That’s where this week’s lectionary picks up. In the first half of our selection, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I also noticed the negative connotation of “staying in your lane.” They enter the house, and Simon and Andrew “told him about [Simon’s mother-in-law] at once,” as it says in verse 30. Why did they tell Jesus about the mother-in-law “at once?” Were they concerned about her health, or ashamed that she did not have the house ready or she was not prepared to entertain them? I interpret this as the brothers apologizing for Simon’s mother-in-law not doing what she’s supposed to do. It was an intensely patriarchal society in first century Palestine, and women “stayed in their lane” by serving the men of the household. However, Jesus does not accost her for not doing what was expected of her. He instead lifts her up, both literally and metaphorically. Her lane is widened and cleared because of the grace of God through Jesus Christ and His work.

In the second half of the text, we see another instance of people trying to have another person “stay in their lane.” Jesus “went out to a deserted place and, there he prayed,” as it says in verse 35. However, sensing that Jesus was not around them, or able to attend to their needs, they “hunted” for Jesus. They did not search or scour for Jesus. They HUNTED for him. You hunt for something when you feel you have a right to it. We hunt animals because we believe we have a right to be full or to enjoy the sport. We hunt for bargains because we feel we have the right to the best price for a good or service. They hunted for Jesus because the Apostles felt they had a right to be with him. According to verse 37, everyone else felt that they had a right to be with Him too. Did Jesus get out of His lane when He went to go pray by Himself? Certainly not. This revelation then begs the question, “What is our lane?” and “Who sets it for us?”

Our “lane” can be defined by many things. Sometimes we can define it, based on choices in our lives, or how hard we work to achieve our dreams. Sometimes it is defined by things are out of our control, like genetics or socioeconomic status. Society sets a lot of the lanes that we live in. For example, I stay in my ministry lane because it is what God has called me to, and I have the requisite training for the career. This also helps us figure out what lane we’re not supposed to be in. I am called to advocate for the oppressed, but I’m also called to lift up those who are oppressed, and follow their lead. I stay in the slow lane, while others more qualified are supposed to take the lead and set the pace. However, the core of what defines our lanes is the power of the Holy Spirit.

John 14:26 says, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (NRSV). The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to thrive in the lane we live in, or move into the one we were called. Many times we are placed in situations where we feel marginalized or misrepresented. The Holy Spirit, however, gives us hope when we feel powerless, and give us a connection to our Creator. We see that in our text through the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and through the connection Jesus has in prayer with God, respectively. We are given hope in the fact that although we may be “stuck in our lanes,” the Holy Spirit fights for us, and for a better tomorrow for us.

14595808_10106165475853810_7909623686024938259_n
Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy

4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy

Mark 1:21-28

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.

“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.

“Not now,” said Aslan.

Unclean Spirits. New Teachings. Authority. Astonishment. Exorcisms. Amazement. Questions. The Gospel of Mark does not want for sermon topics. As I began to look at this passage, I did something I don’t do very often, but should do more frequently: I read the text in multiple translations. As it turns out, my preaching professors were right, this is actually a great place to begin sermon preparation, because this time the NRSV is hiding something.

Maybe ‘hiding’ is the wrong word, and maybe this will be obvious to everyone else. At the end of the passage, after Jesus has taught with authority and then shown that authority by casting out an unclean spirit, the people are standing around. In the NRSV, “They were all amazed…”  The Common English Bible reads “Everyone was shaken…

What does it mean to be amazed around God? The Greek word is thambeo, and as it turns out, Mark uses it more than any other Gospel—a total of 34 times. Translators give a lot of different translations for this sentiment: astounded, amazed, overcome with awe, overcome with excitement, agitated, stunned, and baffled to name a few. At the end of Mark when the women leave the tomb and tell no one what they have seen, they do so because “terror and thambeo had seized them” (Mk 16:8.) In the garden of Gethsemane before his death Jesus is “distressed and thambeo “ (Mk 14:33.) Thambeo shows up at exorcisms, healings, when Jesus walks on water. The word is paired with distress, fear, terror, and as a response to “strange things.”

Given what Jesus did in his time on Earth, amazement and absolute terror both seem like reasonable responses. Given what God is doing today, it seems that amazement and fear are completely appropriate responses. God is dangerous, and to follow Christ is to enter willingly into that danger with fear and excitement. I think that the Sufi master Hafiz says it best when he writes:

Love is grabbing hold of the great lion’s mane

And wrestling and rolling deep into existence

While the beloved gets rough and begins to maul you alive.

True love, my dear, is putting an ironclad grip

Upon the soft, swollen balls of a divine rogue elephant

And not having the good fortune to die.

Watching the lives of the disciples we see that following Christ causes them to have much to fear as they enter into the unknown. Jesus wasn’t welcome in his own home (MK 6:1-6.) Jesus tells the disciples to feed 5,000 people when they only had five loaves and two fish, which from the disciples perspective means giving up the food they had to fill their own stomachs (Mk 6.) Jesus says that whoever wants to be greatest must become like a little child, and not a famous wealthy religious elitist (MK 9.) On top of all this, Jesus keeps telling the disciples that he is going to die. Following Jesus is a proposition that runs counter to everything the disciples had ever dreamed of (which, as a side note, might be why women and the poor resonated with Christ’s message; it allowed them to dream and gave them a place in the kingdom.)

Following God is exciting, but it does not mean clear and easy sailing. If we suggest that following Christ means anything less than letting the power and authority of Christ rip us apart, we do a disservice to our congregations. The gospel is that God puts us back together again. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly healing, casting out spirits, and leading people into a fuller understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God.

Christianity is not a recipe for success or wealth. Christianity is a path to true joy; joy found in relationship with the Creator. Lucy and Susan were both glad and frightened when they turned around only to find the recently deceased Aslan standing before them in greater glory than they had ever known. The people of Capernaum were amazed and shaken when Jesus taught then with authority by casting out an unclean spirit. We should be amazed and horrified when God calls us.

Be honest with your congregation. The call of Christ is earth shattering and life upending, but it is full of life and love. The call of Christ is the only thing that brings us into the fullness of the kingdom. To follow Christ is to surrender what we want to keep, and gain a wholeness we never knew was possible. To follow Jesus is to grab hold of the lion’s mane, and not have “the good fortune to die,” because this way leads to meaningful living, fulfillment, and to life eternal.

LRG_DSC01470
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Together, Jon and Keri have a dog named Hala, two beehives, and chickens. Jonathan was commissioned as a provisional Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2015. He serves two churches in McDowell County, North Carolina. He will be going before the Board of Ordained Ministry the first week of February for his Full Connection and Ordination interviews and would certainly appreciate your prayers.