He did not live in a house

It can be easy to dismiss the stories of the Bible because of how far removed from it all we seem to be.  Events that happened 2, 3, even 5,000 years-ago can feel like they haven nothing to say to us now.  We like to think that we live in a society that is more civilized.  Technology is certainly more advanced.  Science has taught us much about what was thought to be supernatural.  Since Darwin first published On the Origin of Speciesthe church has struggled to keep the Bible relevant and active despite places where the story of scripture doesn’t seem to match the story being revealed to us.  Some, like Jesus Seminar Scholars have tried to throw the Biblical narrative all away as myth.  Others, like the car I saw on Sunday with a bumper sticker that says “Evolution is a Lie” have made the choice to throw out science.  Neither have been very successful because theology and science aren’t zero sum games.

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The reality is that we live in a world where God is constantly being newly revealed to us both in scripture and in science.  God’s story continues to intersect with our story even more than a thousand years after the canon was finally established.  This came to light to me this morning as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday.  Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac is a story about which we have changed our understanding due to advancements in psychology, but we can also very much relate to the situation.

A man who is clearly suffering from some kind of mental illness has found himself outside of the bounds of normal society.  Likely after years of his family trying to support him, finally the man’s struggles had burned every bridge and, as Luke tells it, “he did not live in a house.”  As I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about the root causes of homelessness, I’ve heard a version of this story quite often.  Mental illness, left untreated for a variety of reasons, eventually self-medicated with street drugs, is the story of some, not all, likely not even most, of those who have found themselves experiencing homelessness here in Bowling Green.

While we don’t have the ability to just cast that which possesses folks into a herd of swine, we can still learn a lot from how Jesus interacts with the man he met on the lakeshore.  First and foremost, Jesus saw the man and engaged him.  He didn’t cross tot he other side.  He didn’t put up a “no panhandling” sign filled with dubious “facts.”  He didn’t shake his head and say “somebody should do something about that.”  No, Jesus met the man, in all of his difficulty, face-to-face.  He heard his story.  He had compassion.  And then, because there is no compassion without action, Jesus did something about the man’s situtation. This is where the rubber meets the road for those of us who follow Jesus.  We are called to action.  We are called to seek ways in which all of humanity can be restored to right relationship with God and one another.  It isn’t easy work.  In fact, as in this story, it can be downright messy, but it is the work to which we all have been called.

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Worship, Learn, AND Serve – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it below.


I’m not sure why, but recently, it seems I have been engaged in more than my fair share of conversations about our mission and vision.  It was just a few weeks ago that I based an entire sermon on our mission statement, so I don’t really want to rehash all of it here, but this week, I realized something that I feel I need to share with you.  After more than six months of living with and speaking aloud our mission statement, I came to the realization that it is strung together with an “and” and not an “or.”  We are a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, AND radiate God’s love to all.  This means that in addition to our mission being a statement about who we are as a community, I think it also serves as a call for each of us as individuals.  It isn’t that some are over here doing the worship bit, while others worry about learning and growing, and still others are in the kitchen radiating God’s love.  Rather, we are each called to engage in all three areas of mission and ministry here at Christ Church.  Worship is the proper response to God’s grace.  Being a disciple literally means being a student of the teachings of God.  The fullness of our life in Christ is exemplified in the ministry of service, reaching out and radiating God’s love to all.  Sure, each of us is maybe better equipped to fulfill one part of this mission than the others, but the truth of the matter is that all are called to serve God by way of worship, discipleship, and outreach.

In my experience, it is most difficult to convince people to engage in the outreach component of the life of faith.  We get showing up for worship, and most of us enjoy learning about God, but for some reason, many have been convinced that the call to serve is reserved for a small group who are particularly gifted in some way.  “Oh, I can’t cook.”  “I couldn’t possibly help with Room in the Inn.”  “I wouldn’t know what to say if I visited someone in the hospital.”  Most members of most congregations are quite content to write checks so that somebody else can radiate God’s love on their behalf.  Here at Christ Church, however, we are not “or” Christians.  We are “and” Christians.  Our Gospel lesson for today makes it clear that following Jesus requires us, all of us, to serve.

This story immediately follows last week’s lesson about Jesus healing a demon possessed man in the Synagogue at Capernaum.  As the crowd buzzed with excitement about the authority of Jesus’ teaching and his ability to cast out demons, Jesus and his disciples retired to Simon Peter’s house for the evening.  Upon arriving there, the group was made aware that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had taken ill.  The substantial news coverage of the number of people who have died from the flu this year might remind us that a fever isn’t as innocuous as we have come to believe.  In a world before antibiotics, Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever could very well have been a death sentence.  At the very least, and like every other illness and demon possession in Marks’ Gospel, her fever had rendered her as good as dead by keeping her from the fullness of her ministry and setting her outside of her relationships.

Here I feel the need to pause to make mention of how this text has been used very poorly in the past.  Too often, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has been told as a story that was meant to “keep women in their place” by highlighting that her ministry was a ministry of service.  Some translations say that after she was healed she “began to wait on them” or “prepared a meal for them,” and while that was the traditional role of women in first century Palestine, what Mark describes happening is of much deeper significance.

First, we should note that Jesus did not heal Peter’s mother-in-law in the same way he healed many in the crowd later that evening.  In the Greek, Jesus did something far greater than heal her.  Jesus raised her up.  It is the same word John uses to describe what happened to Lazarus.  It is the same word that Mark will later use to describe the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Day.  What Jesus did for her was far more powerful than the many healings he would do that evening.  He turned her weakness into strength.  He raised her from her as-good-as-deadness and restored her to fullness.  It didn’t take her any time at all to recuperate. Immediately she got up and served them.

As I noted just a moment ago, it is upon this word “serve” that plenty of bad theology has been built.  Rather than being a proof-text for why women shouldn’t be ordained or preach or teach in seminaries, what Mark is actually saying here is that she ministered to them.  The Greek word translated as “serve” is diakonai, from which we get the word Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work from the very beginning.

Even more important is how Mark uses this word elsewhere in his Gospel.  While Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil after his baptism by John, Mark says that Angels waited (diakonai) on him. When Jesus was crucified, Mark tells us that all his male disciples fled.  Judas turned him over to the Temple Authorities, Peter denied him three times, and the other ten were nowhere to be found.  Yet, in that moment of pain and sadness, several women were there.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are named, but there were others.   These were the women, Mark tells us, who had accompanied Jesus as disciples while he was in Galilee, and who had provided for him, served him, ministered to him, diakonai’d for him, along the way.  It is not unreasonable to think that, even though her son-in-law had failed his Lord that day, maybe Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was still there, supporting Jesus in prayer and grief.

Finally, Jesus even uses diakonai to describe his own ministry in Mark 10:45.  My New Testament Professor, John Yieh, called this verse the key to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonai), but to serve (diakonai) and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  For those who follow Jesus, service (diakonai) is the basic building block of discipleship.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, then, is not healed simply to fulfil her role as a 1st century woman or to serve as the exemplar of what women are called to be in the church, but in being raised up to serve, she is the first true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from her fevered bondage in order that she might live fully into her identity as a disciple through loving service.  We who have been set free from our bondage to sin are called to the same.  We are called to worship by acknowledging the holiness of God in word, song, and sacrament.  We are called to learn and grow by engaging in practices of discipleship and Christian formation so that we can deepen our relationship with God through Christ.  AND, we are called to serve, diakonai, by working for justice and peace; by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger; and by visiting the sick and imprisoned.  We may not perform the same sort of miracles that Jesus did, but we can serve with the same goal in mind: joining with God in restoring all people to right relationship with God and with one another and living into the abundant life of grace.  Ultimately, we worship, we learn, AND we serve because it is who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

He Healed Many?

One of the more challenging components of Sunday’s Gospel lesson is how a preacher chooses to handle Jesus’ ministry of healing.  This issue comes up quite often, especially as it pertains to the mass healings that Jesus took part in during his earthly ministry.  These events raise real concerns for those of us who are engaged in pastoral care and believe in the power of prayer.  “Why did Jesus heal so-and-so, but let my child suffer?” is a real and honest question.  One for which there is no answer.

This is made all the more difficult as Biblical scholars make new advancements in understanding the Greek language and its idioms.  The King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, NRSV, NIV, and even NLT all translate Mark 1:34 with the English word “many.”  “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”  This translation is helpful because many doesn’t mean all.  Ergo, we see that even in these mass healing events, Jesus didn’t heal everyone.  There were, presumably, reasons for that.  We have no idea what they are, but we do know that even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again, one day.  Death is batting 1.000.  Always has.  Always will.  (Yes, I’m aware of the mythology surrounding Enoch, Elijah, and Mary.)

What happens when many doesn’t mean many?  There is a shift afoot amongst liturgical scholars to shift the language of the words of institution in the Eucharist away from many and toward all.  Unlike the soft theology around Communion without Baptism, this isn’t being done under the safe blanket of “inclusion” or “hospitality,” but rather, with Biblical scholarship in hand.  In their notes on the changes in Eucharistic Prayers in Enriching our Worship 1, the SCLM elaborates on this shift from “many” to “all.”

The use of “all”… in the institution narrative emphasize that forgives of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity. (77)

This may not be true in every usage of the word, but it seems reasonable to think it might apply in this case.  Or, if not, it at least raises the question.  If Jesus healed many, couldn’t he have healed all?  There are ways to talk about this that don’t fall into cheap platitudes like “God has a plan.”  Sometimes, it comes down to the difficult discussion of what healing actually looks like.  Isn’t death the ultimate healing?

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I don’t have the answers, but I’m happy to raise the questions.  If you are preaching about Jesus’ healing ministry, how do you plan to handle the challenges it raises?  Will you talk about the differences between many and all?  Are you prepared to engage those whom you will lose in your sermon before the Gospel is done being read?  It is a difficult Sunday to preach, dear reader, and you are in my prayers.

Sent as Angels

I started this blog post last Wednesday, with every intent of trying to keep up some sort of blogging schedule during my last week of classes, but I failed miserably.  Thankfully, there are some similarities in the Gospel lessons for Propers 8 and 9 in Year C, so I can use the title and two sentences.

Last Sunday’s gospel lesson marks the turning point in Luke’s story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Having been transfigured on the mountain, Jesus is now on a downhill journey to the cross.  As he prepared for the long, arduous journey to Jerusalem, Jesus sent messengers ahead of him to prepare the way.  In Greek, they are sent (apostolos) as messengers (angelos).  They are sent as angels.

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In the New Testament, the work of the angels is to speak on behalf of God.  In Luke, they’ve been quite busy: announcing the birth of John the Baptist, declaring a pregnancy to the Virgin Mary, and announcing to the Shepherds good news of great joy, the birth of a Savior, Christ the Lord.  Now it is the job of the disciples to take on the role of the bearers of good news.

This week, we again hear the story of Jesus sending people on ahead of him.  This time, Luke tells us that it is “70 others” (heteros), or perhaps more literally, another 70 [messengers].  As Jesus continued his journey to the cross, he sent messengers (angelos) to every town he planned to visit.  They went ahead, prepared a place, and began to lay the ground work for his arrival.  They were sent to share the good news that the Kingdom of God had come near, but when they arrived at their destinations, they realized that their task was even greater than that.  They were able to share not only in his proclamation, but in his ministry of healing and exorcism.  They were sent as messengers, but arrived as angels through the power of the Spirit.

Humanity and Faith

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Elijah Resuscitating the Son of the Widow of Zarephath by Louis Hersent

The story of Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath is one of my favorite Old Testament tales.  It has all the drama of Noah’s flood and all the sarcasm of the Odd Couple of Moses and YHWH.  It is a story of faithfulness, of feeding miracles, and resuscitation if not straight up resurrection.  If you are inclined to preach on this great story, at least a portion of it is available to you in both Old Testament tracks this Sunday.  I’d encourage you to read the whole thing (1 Kings 17:8-24) with an eye toward the faith of the Widow.  It will no doubt prove instructive for those of us in parish leadership positions.

The story opens in a drought.  A long standing drought, with no end in sight.  This Widow has been unwittingly promised by God as the provider of food to the great prophet Elijah.  You’d think God might have sent her a text, DM, or Snap about this, but when Elijah asks her for a drink of water and a small cake to eat, she seems flabbergasted.  “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”

Yet, she acts faithfully.  She bakes Elijah a small cake, and the oil and flour never ran out.  Day after day, so long as there was faith enough to prepare it, there was food enough for Elijah, the Widow, and her son.  It is worth noting, however, that no matter how faithful her actions seem, the author of 1 Kings makes no commentary on the faith of the woman at this point.  We simply know that she did as she was told, and the ingredients remained.

One day, her son became ill and died, and immediately it become clear that while her actions in baking bread seemed faithful, her heart was still stricken by doubt. Her reaction to the death of her son is not unlike the reaction that many of seemingly faithful people have in a moment of crisis: anger, frustration, and fear.  So often, congregational leaders are taken aback by these visceral and deeply human reactions, but they are precisely that: human reactions.

Holding on to faith in the midst of heartache can be difficult, even for those of us with deep faith.  It can be difficult to see God at work when the world is crumbling down around us.  The Widow at Zarephath is the archetype of this very human behavior.  She has seen God at work, day by day, in the jars of meal and oil, and yet, there is a hardness of heart that faith has yet to be overcome.  When Elijah revives her son, the author relays to us her response of faith, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth,” but one has to wonder even then, how deep that faithful response really goes.  It is easy to be faithful in midst of signs and wonders, but the it is equally true that it is historically rare that our faith will be solidified by a miraculous healing.  Instead, the life of faith is often that of seeing God at work in the routine and mundane events of life.  When our faith is strong enough to see God’s provision in everything, miracles abound.  The miracle of every breath.  The miracle of every meal.  The miracle of everyday life.

Luke [un?]intentional double entendre

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Sunday’s story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s slave is full of juicy preaching morsels.  As I pointed out yesterday, it is one of two instances when Jesus is said to be amazed.  There’s the fact that the Centurion never actually sees or talks to Jesus directly, but always through intermediaries.  It is also worth noting that unlike every other healing story I can think of, Jesus never declares the slave healed; he simply commends the faith of the unseen Centurion.  Reading the story some 2,000 years after the fact, it is always hard to tell what exegetical tidbits were intentional choices by the author, and which are just happenstances of language.

Take, for example, the final word in Sunday’s lesson.  In the NRSV, when the friends of the Centurion return to his house, they find the slave “in good health.”  Other translations say he is “well” (NIV), “completely healed” (NLT), and “whole” (KJV).  The Greek word that Luke uses is hugiaino, the standard Greek medical term for healing, but according to my Bibleworks lexicon, it carries another, deeper, theological meaning: “to be sound, correct or well-grounded (of Christian teachings and teachers)”

Luke 7:10 is the second time hugiaino is used in the Gospel.  It occurs first in the story of the calling of Levi the Tax Collector.  The Pharisees and scribes are upset with Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and in Luke 5:31, Jesus responds, “Those who are well (hugiaino) have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…”  Here too, the word seems to be doing double duty.  Jesus’ mission on earth wasn’t to perform miracles and make people hugiaino physically, but rather, his primary mission was to make people hugiaino spiritually by restoring them to right relationship with God through a well-grounded teaching of the will of God.

I can’t be certain that Luke meant both meanings when he first put this Gospel to parchment, but I can’t help but read it that way.  Given the fact that Jesus commends the faith of the Centurion and never actually speaks a word of healing, I can’t help but think that when the Centurion’s friends arrive back at his house, they bring with them the good word from Jesus and, perhaps, a pretty solid understanding of the Gospel.  The faith of the Centurion surely would have been infections upon his household, and so it only seems reasonable that ailing slave would have been made hugiaino in both body and spirit by his in absentia encounter with Jesus.

The Beginning of a Controversy

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“Now that day was the sabbath.”

The end of Sunday’s gospel lesson tells you that there is much more to come, even if the Revised Common Lectionary won’t give it to us.  If you’ve decided to go with the second Gospel lesson (John 5:1-6), please note that the other lessons are fairly short, and you could exercise the rubric found on page 888 of the Book of Common Prayer, “Any Reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  I would encourage you to do so because it isn’t just that last line that is so juicy, but the whole story of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha opens up the beginning of what will be a fairly drawn out controversy over Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

Typical healing stories use one of two words to describe what Jesus does for those in need of help.  He either iaomai  heals them or he sozo heals them.  Iaomi seems to be a fairly generic word for healing or restoration, while sozo carries with it a double meaning of physical and spiritual healing, salvation, and wholeness.  However, in this story’s full incarnation (John 5:1-18), the word that is five times translated as “made well” is hugies, which occurs only one other time in John’s Gospel, at 7:23.  The reprise of hugies at 7:23 comes in the midst of an ongoing argument between Jesus and the religious leaders that seems to stem from Jesus healing this particular lame man at the pool of Beth-zatha on the sabbath.

Given that we are coming to the end of Eastertide, it might seem odd to take the time to rehash the controversy that, in John’s Gospel, at least, would lead the Jewish leaders to seek a way to have Jesus killed, but perhaps that is some merit in telling the full story of the lame man’s healing.  We see in John’s use of the word hugies, another double meaning.  To be hugies is to be sound physically and sound in teaching. As Jesus heals on the sabbath, an act which according to the law was not hugies, John makes the bold claim that the proper thing, the sound teaching, is the compassionate response of Jesus to the man who had been lame for 38 years.  Perhaps this story is an opportunity to take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves and our congregations whether or not we are focused on the hugies of the world.  Or, have we, like the Jewish leadership, become so bogged down in the rule or, more likely these days, the platform of one of the political parties, that we’ve forgotten that the sound response to need in the world – need for healing and need for the desire to be healed – is compassion?