Jesus Weeps for Us

Written by Joel on April 5th, 2014

John 11:1-45

Lent 5A

April 6, 2014

Text framing: Listen for the grief felt in this Gospel story.

Theme Sentence: Jesus weeps for us even when his presence is not felt.

I have heard the saying “There are no atheist in foxholes.” Thankfully I have never had the horrifying experience of war, but I imagine the saying is meant to convey that folks who face times of stress or an encounter with death automatically reach for a higher power and profess a belief in God. At least in my own short experience in this life, I find this saying to be quite untrue. If I must be honest with you (and I want to be honest with you) the times I have come face-to-face with trauma are precisely the times I felt God to be most absent. Like the time I was serving on Timberville’s Fire and Rescue crew and called out to a traffic crash that took a life late last summer. I remember the scene lights that made the whole thing look unreal, the smell of diesel and…the waiting. The State Police had to complete a rather thorough investigation due to the nature of the fatality wreck. And so the fire crew sat on the front bumper of the Engine and waited…for four hours knowing that we would be called upon to open the car which had become the young man’s tomb. And I am realizing now that what felt like an excruciatingly long four hour wait was just a fraction of what Lazarus’ family felt for four days, and this man was a stranger to me. And it was in that moment that I was hoping none my fellow firefighters would ask that most difficult question that has haunted believers since our fall from glory: “If God is all powerful and all loving, why does he let bad things happen?” Because I did not then and do not now have a good answer. And those times I see evil or trauma in this world are also my greatest times of doubt, times when I recognize God’s absence.

Our Gospel story this morning is about a time Jesus was absent for someone he loved, Lazarus. Jesus wasn’t there, he didn’t show up. And perhaps it is most challenging for us to discover that when Jesus did learn of Lazarus’ illness he choose to stay where he was for two more days. Was this a lack of concern on Jesus’ part? When Jesus finally does make it to town he is much too late. Jesus discovers that not only is Lazarus dead, but he wasn’t even in time for the funeral – he had been in the tomb for four days. Or in other words, this is John’s way of telling us “Lazarus was deader-than-a-door-nail dead.” And you can hear the accusation, the felt absence in the first words that come out of the mouths of both Martha and Mary “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What goes unsaid is “Jesus, you were not here when I needed you most.” And even bystanders recognized the absence and Jesus’ seeming lack of power “He opened the eyes of the blind man, why couldn’t he keep this man from dying?”

Jesus is present, though, in the midst of grief. And I do find comfort in the fact that he is willing to be present in grief without a gloss over that emotion. And he seems to meet the sisters where they are, and offer comfort as each of them needs to be comforted. He first encounters Martha who, after her rightful accusation that Jesus had not be present goes on to say “but I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus goes on to have a talk about his promise of the resurrection, the hope in the last day; of eternal life. And it does provide Martha comfort – even if she does not quite get that Jesus will soon offer a sign of new life before her very eyes. But it is the way that Jesus comforts Mary I find most profound for our Christian response to grief.

Martha goes after Mary who goes out to see Jesus; she offers that same exact accusation “If you had been here (which you weren’t) then my brother would not have died.” And she offers no other words, no other explanation, no other request for comfort. She just cries; she weeps. And then, Jesus seeing Mary crying, walks her to the tomb and Jesus wept too. What puzzles me most about Jesus’ show of emotion is that you and I know what happens next…and Jesus knows what happens next – in fact he said earlier to his disciples before he arrived to town “I know that Lazarus is dead…and I am going there to wake him up.” He walked to the tomb, knowing that The Father would hear and respond to his prayer to bring Lazarus up from the dead, and yet…Jesus cries. Why? Jesus wept. These certainly can’t be tears of despair like Martha, Mary, the family, and friends – because Jesus knew the hope of the resurrection which was moments away. I wonder that these are purely tears of empathy. Jesus weeps because Mary weeps. And I do believe that in those times we face trauma, evil, and death; those times that Jesus does in fact feel distant – those are the times Jesus looks down from heaven and weeps with us, even when he knows the promise of the resurrection on the last day…Jesus weeps with us this day.

And maybe he weeps because he knows what will come next for him. He is God incarnate; which also means he must feel all our human emotions including the fear of what must come next. It is the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel that ultimately caused the chief priest along with the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to determine that Jesus must die. Caiaphas did not know how true it was when he said “It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.” And we can see the connections between the raising of Lazarus and the raising of Jesus: Mary, who is the one who anoints Jesus feet; they are both laid in a tomb for several days; both with a stone rolled over the entrance. Only for Lazarus he emerges bound by his grave clothes and Jesus is freed from death which frees us all from death.

We, as the Christian faithful profess our belief in the resurrection from the dead. Lazarus was raised; Jesus rose; we will rise on the last day. Yet, in our times of grief we must wait much longer than the four days of Lazarus. And I think that is why Jesus first declared to Martha “I am the resurrection and the life.” I am. Resurrection life begins now, and Lazarus is proof.

I read this story on Huffington Post this past week ( 21-year-old nursing student Kristina died after being hit by a drunk driver when she was riding home on her bicycle. It was a devastating tragedy for her parents, a tragedy in which I’m sure that Jesus shed tears. But it was after her death that Kristina’s life lived on. She was an organ donor and thanks to her five people have been given the chance at a new life including a baby boy who received her liver and a woman named Susan who received her heart. Susan suffered from congestive heart failure and would have very likely died without the transplant. She was very aware of the new life she received; and the life lost which allowed her a second chance. So she vowed to do everything she could to ensure the donor’s dreams lived on in her. Susan got in touch with Kristina’s family and is striving to fulfill all of the “bucket list” items left undone. Some of them include flying a plane, travel, and riding a camel. This is more than a cute gesture but I find it to be a profound recognition that even in loss, even in God’s felt absence, and certainly Kristina’s family feels her loss even when they know Susan’s intentions. We profess that resurrection life lives now and Jesus weeps with us in our grief until he does join us on the last day.


TVFD Lent 2014

Written by Joel on March 4th, 2014

Ash Wednesday is tomorrow. That is the first day of Lent, a season in which we remember Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and his journey to the cross. The faithful are encouraged to give up something that distracts from living life to the fullest.

And on Ash Wednesday, we put ashes on our foreheads. One of the traditional sayings when placing the ashes is “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I take that as a reminder that life is not wrapped up in what we have. We know from running structure fires that both a beautiful mansion and a dilapidated barn look just about the same when they burn to the ground and become a pile of ashes. Lent challenges us to reflect on this question “When I return to the earth what will be remembered? It certainly will not be the things that possess you.” So…remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.


Advent Pre-Alert

Written by Joel on December 2nd, 2013

December 2013 reflection for Timberville Volunteer Fire Department:

What happens when we hear the County pre-alert tones? We listen and wait. We are in the first week of Advent which is a time for Christian believers to watch and wait for Christ. It is both a time to recall Jesus first coming as a baby in the manger and also a readiness for his coming again. Advent for believers is a lot like firefighter’s watching and waiting in between the time we hear the county pre-alert and our own tones. We know that something has happened, but we don’t quite know if and how God will be calling us. Advent is between a time of “already” and “not yet.” It would of course be tiring to wait in hopeful anticipation all the time, so we make that our special focus for these four or five weeks of the year. Blessings to you all in this season of watching and waiting for our Lord and listen for his call on you.


Un-handicapping Church

Written by Joel on February 24th, 2013

The pulpit at County Line

February 10, 2013. Transfiguration Sunday. No one stood up to read scripture, so I offered an invitation to the whole congregation “Who will offer our scripture today?” It was silent for a moment, and then [our adult female member with MR/ID – I will call her Betsy] shot her hand up. I welcomed her up to the pulpit. She took several moments to gather her belongings and hobble to the front. I offered to read along with her. Betsy can read, but not very well out loud. She mumbled every word as I read for her from the pulpit. She read from Exodus 34 – Moses brought the tablets of the covenant down from the mountain. The story of Moses played out before us right in church! Recall that Moses could not speak well and when God called him; God empowered him with Aaron who could speak. I was her Aaron in that moment; validating her role in the Body of Christ. She also read form 2 Corinthians 4:1 “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Betsy was, herself, the scripture she proclaimed that day. And beyond that she showed us at County Line Church that God will not wait up for us. When we are unwilling to say yes to his call (even something as simple as reading scripture); God will go on with or without you and find someone who will – even those who make us uncomfortable. And God calls the unexpected among us- all…the…time.


Seeing Jesus On Easter Sunday

Written by Joel on April 11th, 2012

Our opening hymn on Sunday…perhaps with a slightly different arrangement :)

April 8, 2012
Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18

It was still dark. Mary Magdalene was on her way to the tomb to properly care for the body of Jesus her Lord. I imagine her walking briskly to the tomb in the cover of darkness, perhaps it was a cold spring morning like it has been here the last few days for us. But as she got closer, something was wrong. Something didn’t look quite right. Like it may be for anyone of us when coming home late at night and something is a bit out of place. Your heart my skip a few beats, your brain tells that heart of yours that everything is probably alright, but then you realize it is not. Everything is not alright – the front door is open, and none of the lights are on. What would you think? What would you assume without seeing anything else? That you have been robbed. Mary saw that stone rolled away and assumed the worst – someone must have broken into the tomb and stole away my Lord! This is the assumption she made all from the sight of the stone rolled away. She did not look in, she only saw the stone and turned around and ran to share her fears with the other disciples.

In the time it took her to run back to the disciples, tell the bad news, and for them to run back to the tomb, perhaps the sun had started to rise. But these two disciples may not have been able to see any more clearly; sweat dripping down their faces, blurring their vision. They saw the stone rolled away too, and they went a step further and into the tomb to find the funeral linens neatly folded and placed in the tomb, as if Jesus had made his bed before he left. That is certainly an oddity. What grave robber would have gone through the trouble of removing the linens, especially the trouble of neatly rolling up each piece separately. Peter saw and believed – but believed what exactly? It doesn’t say that he saw and believed the good news that He is Risen! Just that he believed. Believed what? Perhaps simply that he believed Mary’s report that Jesus body was gone. Yes, she was right after all, no body here – now I believe her, someone really did steal away our Lord. There is no rush back, there is no more sharing of this fearful news. Just the long journey home with what appeared to be the sad news of this empty tomb and an absent savior.

Mary did not go home. She stayed behind, crying and weeping all day. She had thought that she lost her Lord forever and she was robbed of even offering him a proper burial. She finally worked up the courage to peek in and glimpse inside the tomb. Two angels! Two angels who were puzzled by the tears of Mary – why are you crying they asked. These Angels knew the truth, and yet Mary would not learn this news form them. She turned around, perhaps not even aware that she was speaking with angels right where Jesus lay.

She turned around and Mary saw Jesus – but she didn’t see him. She wasn’t prepared to see him in her emotional state, besides she saw the dead body, and dead men don’t walk. She was not prepared to see him so she mistook Jesus to be a gardener, given the context.

A few years ago a world famous violinist by the name of Joshua Bell tried a social experiment. He would dress up in very modest clothes to look like a homeless man, go down to a metro stop in Washington DC and play his violin. Now, just a few days before this experiment, Joshua played for an audience where even the cheap seats were $100. He insisted on playing on his own familiar violin for this experiment, one worth $3.5 million. He played for about 45 minutes. Some of the best music ever written performed by one of the best musicians in the world, in the subway. In that time about 1,100 people walked by and heard the violinist in the background and 7 people stopped to listen for at least a minute. He received about $32 bucks in his violin case. Sometimes we might be surprised by what we don’t see, or hear right in front of us.

And it wasn’t so much seeing Jesus that confirmed for Mary that he arose. It was what he said. Jesus spoke. He knew she was searching, searching for someone, searching for him. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. And she was still so fixated on the bad news that she replied “Sir, tell me where you put him, I will get him.”

Jesus spoke her name: “Mary.” Just a simple calling of her name. How powerful that is, to be called by name. I remember that my childhood bedroom was in the basement, but I know when I was being called upstairs; and I knew just from the call of my name whether I was in trouble or if dinner was ready. Jesus called Mary in the sweet and tender kind of way “Mary.” She heard him speak her name and now she finally saw. Jesus, teacher, Lord. All of Mary’s assumptions were dashed – he had not been stolen, he was right there in front of her.

She heeds Jesus command to go and tell the disciples this good news. And she does so in such a beautiful way. She doesn’t report like a newscaster stating the evening news: this happened, and this happened. It is not a report she gives so much as it is a testimony. She says “I have seen the Lord.”

How many here can say”I have seen the Lord” here at County Line church? I bet you could if you knew what you’re looking for. Just the other day at our Good Friday service, Sarah, who we will baptize today was a bit fearful to go up and touch the cross. I learned after the service that she thought it was the real cross – the one actually used to crucify our Lord. Mom & Dad reassured her and offered to go up along with her, and so she did. I wouldn’t be so quick to say that Sarah was wrong about seeing “the real cross.” This is Christian worship at its best, when a child, someone who is new to the faith can live out the worship service in such a real way as to confuse those pieces of wood we displayed, that were made by members of this church with their own hands for the specific purpose of better telling the very real story of Jesus’ love on the cross. Well, it worked, we told the story and it was really real for this young one in the faith.

That was Friday, and this is Sunday. Today, Easter Sunday, we tell the story of how Jesus overcame that cross, how he rose from the grave, and how he commissioned his disciples to tell this old old story across the generations. How might we help little Sarah to see the Lord as Mary did at the tomb? She looked at two pieces of wood and saw the cross – the real cross. What might she see when she looks at County Line Church, and the members of the Body of Christ that gather here? She will look at you and just might ask “Are these the really real Disciples?” My hope is that as we nurture here in the ways of Christian discipleship, this day and in the years to come, that she will be able to rightly say “I have seen the Lord” because she has seen you. Today we participate in telling again the old old story of Jesus and his love. Be the Body of Christ for her County Line Church and as she grows to know the Lord more and more, she will also tell this story, truthfully sharing “I have seen the Lord.”


The Messiah Must Suffer the Cross

Written by Joel on March 4th, 2012

March 4, 2012
2nd Sunday in Lent
Mark 8:31-38

I can’t seem to find the balance between good audio in the church and a good audio recording. I’ve had one or the other, but can’t seem to get both. Any A/V geeks out there can help?

What comes to your mind when you think of a savior? Superman comes to my mind. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” It might be a last minute nail-bitter, but at the end of the day Superman always saves the damsel in distress, or the innocent children in peril. He is unstoppable, bulletproof, and he conquers the bad guys – puts them in their place. Sure there kryptonite, but that’s only temporary. Superman, as a savior comes out unscathed, righteous, an example of good triumphs over evil. Is this the kind of savior we have in Jesus Christ?

Jesus began to teach them… Jesus has been doing quite a bit of teaching up to this point in Mark’s Gospel. We don’t have the sermon on the mount in this Gospel, but there is still plenty of parables. On his travels Jesus often made it a point to enter the synagogue and teach. And there were plenty of private teaching opportunities when Jesus was alone with his disciples. He taught about the kingdom of God. But now, he began to teach them something new – that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, and be killed. This time there are no parables, there is no promise to keep this a secret, he spoke plainly. Our Gospel reading today is the first time that Jesus predicts his death, the first time that his disciples heard that Jesus must die, and well Peter doesn’t take it too well.

We read that Peter rebuked Jesus. That’s simple something a disciple ought to do to the Messiah, the son of Man. We do need to give Peter some credit though; it was a rebuke out of love. He heard here for the first time that this Jesus that he loved, that he gave up a job, family, friends, safety, he gave up so much for this man he rightly believed to be The Messiah – and he just heard that his Messiah will die! It was a natural, heartfelt, loving rebuke – Say it isn’t so, you don’t have to die, you shouldn’t die, you are the Messiah!

In fact, the verses immediately before our reading, we discover Peter making the first confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus asked his disciples “Who do people say I am?” And they gave various answers: Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet. “But who do you say I am?” And Peter was the first to say “You are the Messiah.” Peter was right about who Jesus was, but it would turn out, Peter was wrong about what that meant.

I imagine that Peter had a superman kind of view of what the Messiah should be. The Messiah was going to come in, kick out the treacherous Roman occupiers with a heavy hand and rebuild the nation of Israel to the glory days it once knew all with power, force, and the sword if necessary This kind of savior would need power and might. That kind of savior certainly could not be killed at the hands of the people he was going to save people from! Peter expected a superman kind of savior and he got Clark Kent. He expected warrior and got victim. He expected relief and got sacrifice. Everything Peter believed about his Messiah was dashed by this new teaching of Jesus. So naturally, Peter pulls Jesus aside and double checks – I think you are mistaken about what it means to be savior Messiah can’t possibly mean death, can it? Surely you don’t have to die.

And here is where Jesus stopped Peter short, interrupted him. Rebuked his rebuke. Peter, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact Jesus calls Peter Satan! Awfully harsh, isn’t it? But when you think of it, Peter is offering a temptation to Christ. There are three times when Jesus faces significant temptation in his life – later in the garden of gethsemane when he prays that the cup of suffering can pass him by, and yet he prays for his father’s will and not his will, this episode with the rebuke from Peter, and Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Recall that time in the wilderness – Each of the temptations that Satan offered was a short-cut to Jesus’ goal of kingdom; but it was a short-cut without suffering. Turns these stones into bread, leap from the steeple and show that the angels will save you; bow down to me and this whole world will be yours. The temptation was do these simple things to get your kingdom as Christ, and avoid the cross. Jesus said “be gone Satan!” The cross is essential to the work of Christ. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter is harsh, but it is true – Peter suggested a Messiah without suffering, he offered the temptation to avoid the cross just like Satan did in the wilderness; and Jesus rebuked this notion because a death on the cross is the ultimate act that Jesus came to do.

It can be difficult for us to realize the scandal of the cross in our modern day. The symbol is everywhere, it has been domesticated to some extent. How many crosses can you spot in this worship space? On our altar, here on the pulpit, various stained glass scenes. Count the crosses you see this week when you go about your daily life. When you see the cross, does it make you cringe? It was a torture device, the government put people on that wood to kill them – it is absolutely scandalous. We might still have that sense of scandal if that instrument of execution was still used today. Imagine if, instead of a cross on our altar, a noose hung in the chancel. That would be awfully erie, uncomfortable,….just wrong. That is the cross. Total scandal. That the God of the universe, the Messiah, would die in such a way at the hands of the government What kind of savior dies? How many people can he save if he can’t save himself? It would seem that Jesus came not to relieve suffering, he came to endure it.

And…he turns to the crowd along with his disciples and said “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Carry your cross. What could that mean? In Jesus’ day, carrying the cross literally meant carrying the piece of wood that served as the cross beam, carrying it to the place of execution. Carrying it through the streets to face the mocking and jeers of the onlookers. If you were not the condemned, carrying the cross meant associating yourself with them and welcoming the insults meant for the one who was facing death. Publicly identifying with the condemned. Certainly, we just simply do not face the same risks here that other Christians do – being a Christian in not a crime where we live (but it is in many parts of the world); and yet, even for us, being religious does come with risk. What will people think of me? Won’t they think I’m some sort of religious nut if I talk about my faith openly? I think of the man on East Market Street in Harrisonburg. Have you seen him? He stands at the traffic light just outside of WalMart. He literally carries his cross. He holds it up, rain or shine, and waves at people as they drive by. By his action he is publicly identifying with Jesus. I wonder what comments he gets, what do people think? He’s crazy; what a waste of time; lazy; weirdo! I bet he faces ridicule to publicly testify about the cross in our modern day; sacrificing an afternoon to do so. What does it mean for you to carry your cross?

What does being a disciple cost us these days? How would you deny yourself, what would you give for the sake of the Gospel? Jesus, our Savior, suffered, was rejected, and died. He called to the crowd and to his disciples – if you want to be my disciple, follow me.


The Day or The Way?

Written by Joel on February 15th, 2012

Last year we baptized two young people at a church member’s farm. In the creek, full immersion, on Pentecost! All the right pieces just fell in place last year. The farmers were having a family reunion anyways and said “sure use the place.” Pentecost happened to be the second Sunday of June last year which made the water not so cold. And, not to mention, we had two young people to baptise! It was a blessed event fresh in everyone’s mind.

Wouldn’t you know two more folks want to get baptized this year! They are new to the church, they saw the pictures from last year’s baptism and and sorta just assumed thats the way its done around here. Well, Pentecost is May 27 this year and the farm is not available that day. This dilemma causes me to pause and reflect: Is it more important to baptize on a significant day like Pentecost, or is it more important to baptize in a significant way like full immersion at the creek with a big party? This year it would seem that either one can happen, but we can’t have both.

The Day. It is certainly possible to baptize on Pentecost at the church. Our church has a very small baptistry font; I’d be surprised if it held more than a quart of water.  Now, I don’t believe that there is any deficiency in using the small font. Pouring and sprinkling still work for baptisms. But human beings are visual and tactile creatures, and I do believe that the meaning of baptism is more easily declared with more water, much more water. My (Disciples of Christ) roots are showing here. Besides, these are adults we are baptizing and the practical matter of “how do I dunk this baby without drowning it?” is not an issue in this case.

The Way. It is certainly possible to baptize the same way we did last year: Full immersion at the member’s farm. But it would be the second Sunday after Pentecost. Now, I do not believe there is any deficiency in being baptized on a “normal Sunday.” Baptism spans all seasons. But, human beings exist in time and space and I do believe it is easier to see our place in the larger story when something like a personal baptism happens on a date significant for the universal church that extends beyond the gathered community on May 27 this year. Not to mention it will be easier to remember that baptism anniversary as “Pentecost” instead of June 10 (or was it the 17th?…).

The Way & The Day. We could also find an alternate location, but this of course would be outside of the Sunday morning gathered worship community (unless everyone does indeed decide to go to this off-site baptism). We could have a full immersion Pentecost baptism. But I don’t think we could have it all: we risk losing the connection with the local church that these folks are joining. The farm has deep (very deep) roots to the story of how County Line Church came to be, and everyone goes to the farmer’s reunion on the second Sunday of June – the church will definitely be there. I’m not so sure that the church would venture out for an extra service in May- to a disconnected location, and for “outsiders” of the church. Is that pessimistic, or realistic?

No matter how it happens or when it happens the Body of Christ is getting bigger, praise God for that!

What do you think is more important in this situation? The way or the day?


A Fishy Sermon Illustration

Written by Joel on February 4th, 2012

What makes for a good sermon illustration?

I heard a cute story on the radio last week where the $3,000 prize for an ice fishing contest was for a 4.5 oz perch! It won because it was the only fish caught that day. There were more prizes that had to be given away by a random drawing. Here’s the story by a local radio station.

My little sermon-illustration-alarm went off in the back of my head when I heard the story. It’s cute, there is a punch-line, and it’s easy to remember. I filed it away to look up later on the internet and save for the next time a fish story comes up in one of the Sunday morning readings. I immediately thought of the disciples who cast their nets and caught no fish. It fits perfectly, right?

But what is the point of a sermon illustration anyways? Is it supposed to be a cute story that relates to the bible lesson in some tangential way? I don’t get the opportunity to hear very many other preachers, but I sure can picture a preacher telling the story, embellishing with full detail perhaps even describing the weather, the participants, and the tiny little fish, taking 2 or 3 minutes perhaps (that’s a tithe of a 20 minute sermon!) And the point the preacher seems to make is “well I heard this other story about some other folks who also didn’t catch any fish.” But is that what the text is about?

Are sermon illustrations meant to fill time? Maybe to entertain? I think illustrations are meant to uncover the meaning of the text at hand. I tend to write a theme sentence for my sermon – sum up the entire message in a single statement. Then, an illustration only makes it in if it furthers the main idea of the sermon’s theme sentence. My illustrations are often short – sometimes even a single sentence “It’s kinda like…” Often context does need to be added to an illustration in order to make it effective, so it becomes a bit longer. For those disciples in the boat, they had given up and went back to their old unfulfilling careers they had before they were called by Jesus. Kinda like Mr. Incredible (Pixar’s The Incredibles) who gave up super-hero-ing to become an insurance adjustor. See what I mean? Or maybe I am off track and I should have gone with the fish.

So, preachers (and those who receive sermons): What is the purpose of a sermon illustration? And what makes for a good one? What causes an illustration to “flop?”


Church is where the afflicted go for an encounter with Christ’s healing presence

Written by Joel on February 3rd, 2012

January 29, 2012
Epiphany 4B
Mark 1:21-28

Our Gospel reading this morning is about demon possession, which is a bit difficult for us as modern readers isn’t it? I have met fellow Christians who insist that they have seen first hand demon possession in third-world mission destinations. But, it’s just not something in my own Christian experience – I’ve never been possessed by a demon nor seen anyone possessed either. So it’s a bit difficult for me, and perhaps for you (if you also have not been possessed nor seen possession) to know what to do with this text. So let’s try to take a closer look at what this Gospel says about Jesus – what he does and who he is. What does it mean for us that when Christ announces the coming of the kingdom of God, it comes with the exorcism of a demon and the restoration of a man to the community?

It is interesting to realize that we are still in chapter one of Mark’s Gospel, and this story is Jesus’ first order of business after calling his first disciples, that call story which we read last week. Jesus went to the synagogue, on a sabbath, and began to teach. And Jesus is teaching with authority, something the people haven’t experienced from their religious leaders. And then out of no where comes this man with an unclean spirit; he cried out interrupting Jesus’ teaching. Could you imagine such a person walking in here and interrupting the sermon or another part of the worship service with a loud cry: “What do you want with us Jesus!” And Jesus drives out that unclean spirit and everyone is amazed.

I think that is an important distinction here: unclean versus evil. The NIV translation we use here choses “evil,” but has a footnote that the Greek states “unclean.” What is the difference between evil and unclean? Evil is a bit more easy for me to understand – its something opposed to God, evil spirit, the devil, sin. Something just by its very nature is wicked. But unclean? That is a bit more down to earth. Mud, rodents, garbage; that nasty soup of pureed foods that gets stuck to the bottom of the drain in the kitchen sink. Things that will make you unclean if you come into contact with them, you avoid impurities and uncleanliness to keep yourself pure and clean. But we wouldn’t say those things are evil just because they are unclean, but we still avoid them. So what does it mean for the bible to say a someone has an unclean spirit possessing them, or even to go so far as to say a person is unclean?

We may be able to explain away demon possession with our modern medical understanding – Oh, demon possession was just undiagnosed mental illness, those simple people saw someone mentally ill, couldn’t explain it and so they called it demon possession. That may help us grapple with demon possession, but it doesn’t explain away uncleanness which is still a concern for us in our day. And I do believe that we still have a concept of clean/unclean, pure/impure people in our modern culture – though we are much less willing to admit it. Are there kinds of people we avoid in order to maintain our own purity? Jesus has power over evil, that’s clear and obvious; but Jesus has power of uncleanliness too – and our concept of impurity especially when it comes to people. Perhaps the incredibly remarkable thing here is not that Jesus drove out a spirit but that Jesus welcomed a man into synagogue who was plagued with uncleanliness. Of all people that were unclean enough to be unwelcome at the synagogue (think of tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars, lepers) of all people, a demon possessed man sure doesn’t belong at synagogue! But the man came to seek an encounter with Christ. Isn’t that what church is supposed to be?- The place where the afflicted seek an encounter with Christ? Christians, unfortunately don’t always make this easy, or possible even. Most church sign boards, like ours, say “All are welcome” but I really wonder…

Just what is it that makes us uncomfortable around “unclean” people (literally and figuratively). And these are cultural categories, clean/unclean pure/impure, that may change over time. Who might those impure people be for us today? Who might make us uncomfortable if they were to walk through our synagogue – And just what makes us uncomfortable with these folks? It couldn’t be that we are afraid of “catching it” is it? Those people, who we may readily label “unclean” in our subconscious, I have found sometimes they don’t follow the same cultural rules that we have, they may ask inappropriate questions, over-share, talk a bit too much, stand a bit too close, a bit too ready to trust so much – and that makes us(me?) uncomfortable; perhaps because they expect the same level of openness of us? Something we are not quite ready to be, even with ourselves? How can the church be a place where the afflicted seek an encounter with Christ today?

About two weeks ago we had a church visitor, in the middle of the week – a Tuesday or Wednesday I think. I heard that she came out here on our church lawn, threw out a blanket and sat here for 4 or 5 hours – all day. And then she came out the next day, same thing – laid out a blanket and sat all day. Our neighbors were awfully concerned, and as you can imagine, I received a number of phone calls that week about our odd church visitor. We raised questions, that sounded quite a bit like our Gospel text today “What do you want from us?” What if she is up to no good? Who does that anyway? It is unsafe! It is just plain weird! No body does that! And yes, that situation is a bit unnerving, it is a bit odd, it does give reason to make us uncomfortable. And I would encourage you to pause and reflect, just what about such a situation, a stranger to this place – what about that does indeed makes us uncomfortable? I don’t bring it up to make us feel guilty about our discomfort – it makes a lot of sense to be uneasy; but I do want to reflect on it a bit: What makes us uncomfortable about a stranger who seeks a spiritual retreat here?

I received a phone call from the church visitor herself. She shared with me how she suffered from a medical condition in which she had a very high sensitivity to electronic fields such as cell phone towers, and electric wires so she sought escape from the city and she finds peace out here in the country side. An afflicted woman seeking refuge. Yes, we maybe able to explain it away – her medical condition, or we might think there is some mental illness going on (Who sits outside a church all day in a January!); but that doesn’t explain away our discomfort with her; and what may be her afflicting her.

Besides all that, how exciting that a woman from Harrisonburg, 20 miles away, was led to this church to find a place of peace! Peace in God’s presence at his church on the County Line. Isn’t that why we gather here? Isn’t that what first drew us here in the first place? Aren’t we all seeking the same thing? And now she is the odd one, the one who spends hours on the church lawn seeking peace.

I think that we do believe and want the church to be a place where the afflicted go to seek an encounter with Christ’s healing presence. And Christ offers that encounter even with the socially impure among us. Even when it amazes, and dis-comforts us.


Christmas Is Togetherness

Written by Joel on December 29th, 2011

December 24, 2011
Luke 2:1-20

I remember being a kid and looking forward to Christmas eve at grandma’s house (yes, for some reason it was grandMA’s house not the grandparents house). She was just across town, less than a 30 minute drive. But the journey was special and we always looked forward to it. Other grandkids, aunts and uncles, and all of their boyfriends and girlfriends, they all made the trip too. My brother and sister, and my folks probably lived the closest; but the others came too even though it took one particular set of cousins nearly two hours to get to grandmas that night. That was the Christmas rule, a holiday tradition – you just went. There was always a buffet dinner of ham sandwiches and grandma always made vanilla cupcakes with white frosting – half with green dusted sprinkles and half with red dusted sprinkles. We sat on the floor and everyone got a gift from the grandparents.

Just why did this Christmas memory and tradition remain with me many years later? At it’s core the meaning of Christmas was not in the presents, the food, and not even in the cupcakes – it was in the togetherness. That’s why folks travel for the holidays, why we endeavor to clean house for relatives and why folks make special efforts to have a family meal. Christmas is togetherness. For Christian believers, Christmas is when we proclaim that even the God of all the universe, who is beyond all time, the Lord of Lords, the king of kings, the savior, Lord, Messiah; that God…God chose to be with us. Christmas is togetherness, and at Christmas, God chose togetherness even with the likes of us!

A very long time ago, in a town many many miles from here called Bethlehem; there was a man and a woman. Their names were Joseph and Mary. They were traveling to Joseph’s home town because Caesar ordered a census. Mary was pregnant and she was due to give birth this very night. There was no room for them in the inn, and so Mary had to give birth in the stable with the animals. She wrapped him in cloths and laid him down. It was the first Christmas, and the holy family gathered together. It was the first Christmas, and God stepped down to enter the world as a baby.

What that night must have been like for the holy family – all of the fear and expectation that comes with welcoming a new child into the world. Mary knew to expect great things of this child – the angel Gabriel gave her the news before she conceived. She was told that Jesus would be great and would be called the Son of the Most high, that he will sit on the throne of David forever. And yet, when that moment came and God entered the world in that stable – in the presence of an exhausted Mary and a breathless Joseph; it was noticeably silent… The angel Gabriel did not come back to encourage Mary through, he did not offer a reminder of the promise, God did not send Gabriel back to welcome the babe. There were no angels heard on high; no great light. This extraordinary miraculous birth of God made man was well…quite ordinary.

At least in the manger. There are of course angels in our Christmas story. But we find them in the fields nearby. The angels and company of heavenly hosts appear to shepherds in the fields, folks who also had no room at the inn. In fact they are lower than that. The shepherds were not very highly regarded in the culture of Jesus’ day. They had a dirty, low-paying, smelly job. They were general, unskilled laborers. The shepherds had little power, people simply would not have taken note of what they had to say. And yet God sent his angels to announce the good news of his birth, first to the shepherds in the field.

The angels announce to the shepherds “A savior has been born to you; Glory to God in the highest heavens!” This heavenly announcement of a new born king was declared not to kings, nor to princes, nor to authorities, nor to powers, nor to armies, nor to rulers. Not to Caesar, but to ordinary men in the field. That is just God’s way. Jesus began his reconciling work between God and us at the manger. The “us” in “God with us” is you and me in all of our ordinariness. In our lowliness, in our emptiness, in our loneliness, in our despair, and even in our sinfulness. God with us.

And this will be the sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Just how many babies were born that same night? Just how many mothers wrapped their young in cloths that night? Probably many. And yet this one, this one born of Mary was God almighty. What an ordinary sign, of the glorious almighty God with us.

The shepherds returned, praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. And that is the task before us in the Christmas season. This is why we gather together this evening. We have been told the good news of the Christmas story that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, even as a baby in a manger: a lowly, vulnerable, dependent infant. God entered this world in this way because he loves you. The Good-news of Christmas is that we worship and adore a God that is near. Our Lord is not distant and far-off, He is not someone who knows nothing of our pains, our fears, and our trials. He has been here, God is with us.

Christmas is togetherness. Christmas is the meeting of the heavenly and divine with the ordinary and human. Christmas is “God with us.” So be with him. Merry Christmas.