Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Passionate Jesus - A Life of Seeds and Storms

Preached on Sunday, March 4, 2018; Third Sunday in Lent

Scripture readings: Psalm 65; Mark 4:26-41

Various Photos from Desert Aire, WA and Washtucna, WA
In an old story about gardens, there’s a little girl who begged, and begged, and begged her parents to let her plant a garden all her own. She jumped for joy when they finally said, yes.
So, she borrowed some of their seeds. She also borrowed their tools and one of their bedsheets. She did her seeding, and she built an awning with the sheet draped over sticks to protect her seeds from the sun.
After that, she did as much as she could to get those seeds to sprout. She didn’t want them to dry out, so she poured water on them when she got up in the morning and before she went to bed.
She waited, and waited, and waited. Her parents garden was sprouting and growing, while not a single shoot appeared in her own garden.
The girl got so excited that she couldn’t help herself anymore. She used her own fingers to gently dig the soil in the lines she had marked, where she had planted those seeds, to see if they were beginning to sprout. And they were! Except that they stopped growing after she dug them up.
The story of the child reminds me of Jesus’ story of the farmer who goes out to inspect his fields night and day, waiting for the seed to sprout and grow.
You’ve got to understand that Jesus’ parables, or stories, often have crazy people in them and there’s no other way to understand them. Sometimes we can’t understand ourselves unless we compare ourselves to crazy people. Sometimes we can’t understand what God wants unless we compare what God wants with a lot of things that we would never do because they sound crazy to us.
The farmer is as crazy as a little kid, most farmers grow out of this, somewhat, although you really may have to be a bit crazy to be a farmer. I don’t think it would be much fun any other way. Hunters and fishermen and maybe golfers are just the same.
But farmers, and golfers, and little kids need to learn how to be patient. If you plant an orchard you have to wait for years (well, just a few years) before you see enough fruit to go out and bring it in. If you go for winter wheat, you seed as soon as you can after harvest, which happens in Eastern Washington around late July and into August.
If there’s enough moisture in the soil, you plant winter wheat in September or October. Then you wait eight or nine months (or more) until your next harvest is ready.
During those months, anything can happen. I wonder if the nervous farmer gets up in the middle of the night to look around because he’s wondering how that seed is going to grow with all the stuff that can possibly go wrong? That’s what I would do.
I know farmers who can look at the bare ground of their field and guess pretty well what’s going on underground. They can look up at the sky and read the wind, and any sign of clouds, and know if it means something good, or trouble.
The child and the farmer were crazy with impatience; but, if they acquired just enough patience to be only slightly crazy, then you would be able to see what their impatience was hiding.
The little bit of craziness that remained would show up as eagerness. You wouldn’t get up at all hours any more, but you would feel the eagerness that comes from love and from faith. As a farmer, you love your connection to the earth. A sane farmer has enough faith to trust that, whatever may go wrong, it will all work out.
The seed in chapter four of Mark is not a simple thing. The seed is too much even for Jesus, in the sense that it’s too exciting. Jesus knows that his seed can do so much. It can make such a difference. It’s so exciting that Jesus is not afraid to plant his seed over the world from the elevation of the cross.
In the first big seeding and harvesting parable (one that we didn’t read) the seed means the word of God or the message of the gospel (the good news of God). Then Jesus changed his mind, and the seed became the people who lived on the farm road, and the people in the rocks and the weeds.
With the mustard plants, Jesus changed his mind again, and called the seed the Kingdom of God, which means God’s positive power turning the world around until it moves with the will and love of God. The kingdom of God means that the love of God will be in charge, in order to change the whole world, and all the people in it, into a life full of love, and joy, and glory. Jesus has the crazy eagerness of a little child, a happy golfer, and a grateful farmer.
If our farmer is obsessed with worry and anxiety, it’s because he hasn’t learned to trust his good seed. He hasn’t learned to trust the soil beneath his feet, or to trust the sky above him.
If we don’t live our lives and plant our good seeds in faith, then we will live like the crazy, worried farmer. We need to trust God’s seed, whether it’s the word and message of God’s plan, or whether it’s the good news of Jesus carrying out that plan. We need to trust God’s good seed even if that seed may be everyone we know, and everyone we meet, wherever they are; in the good soil, in the rocks, in the weeds, or on the farm road.
The farmer in the big parable that we haven’t read is God. We are God’s field, God’s farm, and we are the workers in it at the same time. By this you can tell that the parables of Jesus are very wild, and moving all over the map.
Yes, even Farmer God is a little crazy. He’s too extravagant. He’s actually careless and wasteful in his love and grace. He’s crazy because he wastes his seed. To any good farmer this looks just about a crazy as a farmer can get. A good farmer never wastes seed.
If he lets his kids play in the wheat in the back of the wheat truck at harvest, the good farmer reminds them to empty their shoes, and empty their pockets and their pants cuffs back into the truck bed before they climb out of it, because there will always be some wheat caught in their shoes and all that, and wheat is real gold for the farmer. You’ll never have a harvest unless you scatter your seed on the soil, but you never, never, never waste your seed. Farmer kids learn that early.
But Farmer God is crazy graceful in a wasteful way. He pours out the good seed on everyone, wherever they happen to have fallen, on the road, on the rocks, or on the weeds. So, God’s people need to do the same. They need to prove that they share God’s heart, the way God does when he scatters the good seed on everyone, everywhere.
That’s why Jesus has to live in our hearts. Without a heart that’s crazy graceful to others, we won’t really look like him at all. The resemblance will only be a good makeover that’s less than skin deep: thin enough to see through.
You spread God’s seed by what you say and do. You spread God’s seed by living the message of the good news of Jesus. Your life embodies the kingdom of God that governs you with so much harmony: all this means trusting the precious seed of God as you plant it.
Trust means treasuring that good seed so much that you never hoard it. Faith means to spend that seed; to invest that precious seed for an even more precious harvest.
I have driven a wheat truck at harvest time, and parked with all the combines and trucks together in the last piece of the last field, when all the farm has been cut, and all the wheat has been gathered into the bins and elevators.
It feels so good to stand there with the rest of the harvest crew. It’s like heaven. I’m sure it’s a foretaste of heaven. It’s precious. It’s golden. We’ve won.
The parables of Jesus invite us to live our lives with him in a world like that. We trust the seed of God’s message and love. We even call that seed our own. We trust God’s crazy grace. We pour God’s seed out on everyone, because Farmer God does it.
We can trust the kingdom which is God’s good skills, and God’s good methods, and the power of love to rule us all, and to rule us well. The farm itself is the kingdom of God. In the old days, the farmhands were like family and they found a good life for themselves in the kingdom of the farm.
The parables are Jesus’ way of telling us this. They are also a lesson that we can never learn what it means until we take the time to sit close to Jesus and let him explain it to us, over and over again.
Seeing and hearing are not enough. We come to Jesus to perceive, to understand, to turn around, and find ourselves forgiven. Forgiveness is how the harvest grows.
The parables of Jesus tell us that understanding doesn’t come easily. And that even a farmer might know less about his own business than he realizes.
The worried farmer is right, in his own way. The story of the storm teaches us why the message of the gospel, and the crazy graciousness of our sharing, and the Kingdom of God, itself, need to be learned.
The worried farmer was right that anything could go wrong. There could be drought, or rain, or hail at harvest, just as a beautiful lake can sink a boat.
Except for the fishermen, the people of Israel, usually avoided being on the water. In their mind, bad things happened on the water. The worst of it was that, unlike being on the land, if something went wrong on the water, there was no place for you to turn and run.
They had legends of sea monsters. One kind of monster was called Leviathan, and it loved to play, but its play was evil. Leviathans at play raised the winds and the waves.
No one could control it or tame it but God himself. In fact, the stories of God taming Leviathan became the picture of God’s power to beat and defeat evil: the picture of God taming the waters and the oceans where the monsters lived. God possessed the power to do this because God, alone, is the creator, the Lord of heaven, earth, and sea, and storm.
Moses and Joshua made a path through the Red Sea and the Jordan River, but it wasn’t really them. It was God. Elijah was another one who stopped the Jordan but it wasn’t him either. It was God. Only God could command and subdue the seas and the rivers. No other human could ever hope to do it.
Then Jesus, who was not afraid to sleep in a sinking boat, calmed the wind and the waves of Galilee. Jesus did the job without using a tool like a holy staff or a mantel. Jesus did the job with his word; just as God the Father created the heavens and the earth, and tamed the monsters of the sea, with his word.
Jesus does what God does with a word. Jesus tames the storms of the sea, and the monsters within, with a word. Jesus tames our own storms, and the monsters within us. Paul wrote this: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) Jesus and his Father do the same thing. They share the same work. They work the same way.
Sitting and listening to Jesus tell parables or stories, and explain them, was so nice, so easy. They could go on like that forever.
Following Jesus showed his disciples (his friends) that living with Jesus included stories and storms, seeds and storms. Galilee wore a monster’s face in that storm; like old stories coming true.
The truth is that, wherever Jesus went, and wherever they went with him, they seemed to meet up with enemies, and danger, and evil. Jesus would go into a town, and the demons would drag their victims up to Jesus and make it look like Jesus was really being praised by the devil, as if he was serving the devil’s side of things.
The rabbis accused Jesus of this at least once. The devils were putting on a show in order to put Jesus in danger of being killed as a wizard. The disciples could be judged guilty by association.
After the resurrection, and after Jesus returned to heaven, the joyful disciples soon found that their lives still consisted of seeds and storms.
There is a battle: a spiritual battle. Churches and Christians, especially if they are faithful, will meet with storms: and sometimes those storms will be evil in disguise.
This comes not only from the outside. It comes from the inside too: inside a church, or a fellowship, or inside each one of us. It happened to the disciples with Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples.
This is hard. It’s not enough to go by what you see and hear alone. You have to go deeper. You have to want to perceive and to understand, to turn and bring God’s power of forgiveness, which is the power of the cross. That is still how the kingdom grows. Even that might take some understanding.
If we have faith in God’s seeds, we must have faith that these seeds also work in the storms. We speak God’s word to our storms, the situations and the people.
We speak God’s word by living the life of Jesus in this world. We continue to live with crazy, extravagant grace and not withdraw. We let God the King give us our marching orders, because we are nothing if we are not a colony of his kingdom. We let God rule us more and more. That is another way to trust the good seed.
One thing about seed is that it looks nothing like the harvest. One thing that seed does have is that the harvest is present, hidden inside the seed. Every healthy seed has a tiny plant inside it, waiting to grow and bear fruit.
What we say and do for Christ may not look very much like Jesus himself, but we are the seed with Jesus in us waiting to sprout, and grow, and bear more seed. And God is the plant inside of Jesus, the seed inside of us, waiting to sprout, and grow and bear more seed. The harvest is really more of God, in Christ, in us. Someday everyone will know this.
Jesus is the seed: a baby in a manger, a carpenter turned teacher, a convict dying on a cross, a dead man rising with more life than he ever showed before his death: this is the seed. Even this doesn’t look like a new heaven and a new earth. This cross and empty grave don’t look like a multitude, from all nations and races and languages, that no one can count. The cross and the grave don’t look like a whole world of people who are also risen and new inside and out. The seed of the cross and the empty grave don’t look like all of this, but it has all of this in it, waiting to sprout and grow.
We have all of this in us: in ourselves, because we have Jesus in us. The life of seeds and storms is the life of Jesus, and we can trust this. We can be eager as kids, and golfers, and farmers. We can live crazy, gracious lives. We can live peaceful lives of seed-time and storm-time. We are made for both. We are save for both. And, someday, the harvest and the end of all storms will be ours.

Friday, March 2, 2018

To the Cross - Redeeming Our Failures

Preached on Wednesday, February 28, 2018; the 3rd Wednesday of Lent

Scripture readings: Psalm 51; Matthew 26:69-75

I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like a failure before?
It really isn’t very hard to do.
Walking along Columbia River at Desert Aire, WA
February 2018
But it’s about the very worst thing that you can admit to, in this twenty-first-century-America of ours.
Failure is a hard experience to get through and if you try to explain to others what you’re feeling, you’ll probably get told one of two things. You may be told that you’re wrong. On the other hand, you might get told that the only failure is the one who thinks that he or she is a failure. Well neither brands of advice are very encouraging or helpful. In our own time and place in history, even the church misses the point of failure.
This is a Bible. It’s God’s word: God’s story; God’s message to you and me. It says exactly what God wants it to say for God’s own very specific reasons. God wants to show himself and God wants to speak himself to each one of us to give each of us the knowledge and the true understanding of God, and the knowledge and the true understanding of ourselves.
It’s so hard for each one of us to truly understand God and to truly understand ourselves. And we’re not so likely to be interested in truly understanding other people because (although we may sometimes want to help other people) we usually want to blame other people, or judge them.
God’s happens to be keen on us not going that direction, so God doesn’t waste his time or his word helping us to understand other people. So, God hasn’t designed his word to tell you about me, or to tell me about you.
God wants to speak directly to you about your own life, and your own need. He doesn’t do this in order to make you think that your life is all about yourself. God Doesn’t like that either. God simply wants to crack through our own stony brains.
God wants to let you and me know, without giving us any room for escape, exactly who we are. And, so, God has filled his word with failures.
Given a garden full of options, Adam and Eve made the one choice that they were told not to make. Noah, the only truly righteous human being on earth became a drunk after the flood. Abraham, who is the source of all God’s people of Faith, (whether Jewish, or Christian, or whatever) didn’t have enough faith to keep him from lying about his wife being his wife. The story of failure goes on and on.
In the New Testament, Jesus (who is God in the flesh) is continually scolding his disciples about their failures of faith. He scolded their failure to let the children come to him. Jesus scolded their failure to trust that if he asks them to feed a crowd using only a few morsels, that he himself will make it possible. They found that trust as hard the second time they fed the crowds as they did the first time. Even after the resurrection and Pentecost, they often didn’t get things right.
The Bible is a book about failures and it’s about the God who loves failures and never leaves them and never gives up on them. The Bible is about the God who never leaves the failures alone until he fixes them and recreates them, or until they come into his presence for the final great new creation.
Maybe you have never been a failure; but, if you ever have been, then, this book is for you; and the God of this book is for you. And the God of this book is the God of the Gospel, which means God’s Good News for you. The greatest wisdom in this world comes from knowing this truth.
Jesus was in a room of the High Priest’s big house, getting slapped, and punched, and spat upon because of the new creation he was bringing to Peter, and to us, and to the world. We read about Peter denying that he even knew who Jesus was, even though, when Jesus asked his disciples to tell him who he was, Peter was the only one who could put it into words: “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. (Matthew 16:16)
In a few minutes Peter would run out of the gate of the High Priest’s house weeping hot, bitter tears of failure.
Peter wasn’t the worst. Judas sold Jesus for thirty silver coins. The other disciples had already run away to hide. Peter denied Jesus with his words, but the others denied Jesus by their absence.
John tells us about one disciple who went with Peter to the trial of Jesus. The one other disciple left on the scene got Peter into the house because the High Priest and his staff knew this disciple and his family. This one disciple was the one that John tells us “Jesus loved”: not because he was special, but because John felt too loved even to give his identity away when he did the right thing.
The nameless disciple, named John, was the bravest of them all because the Priest and the staff already knew that he was a disciple of Jesus, and so (if he did get in trouble because of following Jesus) going to the High Priest’s house could make things any worse. So, he was there to watch Peter’s failure happen.
John could have named himself here, to make himself look good. But I don’t believe that he thought of himself as a success, and so he hid his name from us. Practically the only one in the Bible who isn’t a failure doesn’t want us to know it. And we’re really only guessing when we claim that we know that he was John.
This Book, and this God who shows himself to us in Jesus, knows who you are, and what you will do, and what you will say, before you do or say it or even think about it. Before he sent Judas off to do his work, Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.” (Matthew 26:21) When the Passover meal was done, he said to all the rest, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” (Matthew 26:31) To Peter who claimed that he would never fall away, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this very night before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” (Matthew 26:34)
Jesus knows our every weakness. Jesus knows all of our failures before we do.
Jesus also knows that what he will do for them (and for us), on the cross and in the resurrection, will make all of us into new people who will follow, and even be willing to fail, in order to keep right on following and taking up our crosses with Jesus.
Jesus hinted at this when he said, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Matthew 26:32) He knew that they would keep on following, even when they had seen the worst. Jesus knew that they would keep on following, even at the risk of failure.
Those who go ahead on the road of the cross, or the road of the love of Jesus, and keep on this road for love of the world and their neighbor, knowing that they will fail, and knowing that failure won’t keep them from succeeding: those are truly the people of Jesus.
Jesus died as a tortured and cruelly executed criminal. People would curse his memory. People would curse his followers. People may curse us. What looked like a curse in the form of a cross was and is, really, an infinite love that is stronger than any sin, stronger than all evil combined, stronger than Hell and all its forces, stronger than death, stronger than the universe.
The cross and the resurrection of Jesus turn failure into victory and salvation. Carry that on your back. Carry that in your heart. Do it, and you may change lives even because you fail.
True forgiveness is infinitely greater than the words that say, “You are forgiven”. Forgiveness is power, and healing, and life. The blood of the cross is stronger than any failure and Jesus calls to us to come to his cross and be forgiven. Come to the cross and be healed. Stop living by what you think of yourself. Start living in the life that comes from that cross. It’s new every day, every moment.
When I was twenty I wrote a poem a little bit about this. I’ve made some changes. But here’s how it goes.
Lord, if I seem a fool, disaster-prone,
And powerless to hold true to your will,
To keep that faithful path you’ve given me,
Inherit all the joy that I’m assured
Can be mine if I’m faithful to the end;
If I, in folly, trip along the way,
Fall face down in the dust along the road
And seem, to all the world, cut off from you;
By my sad failure severed from the prize;
Yet, Lord, I pray that, by some mystery,
Your humbleness would take my vanity,
Transforming it to something like your cross,
Which fooled the world by looking like defeat,
And yet redemption brought. You seemed a fool…
Make me a fool for you.

Dennis Evans, written in spring 1973, revised.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Passionate Jesus - True Love Is Disturbing

Preached on Sunday, February 18, 2018

Scripture Readings: Leviticus 13:40-46; Mark 1:40-45

Walking the shores of the Columbia River
DesertAire/Mattawa, WA
January 2018
Three long-time friends were having a friendly talk, and their talk turned serious. They began to talk about what they thought were the most important priorities they fulfilled in their own lives. They wondered, if they were allowed to visit their own funerals, after their own deaths, what they would find that others thought of them. They talked about what they would like to hear people say about them, when they looked into their coffin.
One friend was a physician and he said, “I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor who took his patients seriously, that I was a good golfer, and that I spent plenty of time with my family.”
Another buddy was a teacher, and he said: “Well, when they look into my coffin, I want them to say the same thing about me and my family, and that I turned out an amazing number of students with the foundation they needed to make a difference in the world.”
The third buddy said: “When they look into my coffin, I’d like to hear them say: “Look! He’s moving!”
In ancient Israel, even in the time of Jesus, the scariest people in the world (next to invading soldiers, and armed bandits) were lepers.
I know almost nothing about leprosy. I just looked it up, last night, for the first time in several years. It’s a bacterial infection that damages the skin, the nervous system, the lungs, and the eyes.
You eventually lose your sense of pain, so you don’t know when you’re sick, or have a scratch, or abrasion, or a splinter, or something in your eye. That’s the way leprosy spreads its infection and damages your whole body. It eventually deforms your features, and your joints, hands, feet, and mobility.
Leprosy is not highly contagious except for places where there isn’t good hygiene or sanitation. That would include most of the ancient world. The mucous from your lungs and nose would carry the bacteria, through a cough, or a sneeze, or just through unwashed hands.
The mutilation, or deformation, it caused and its effect on the joints, and on one’s coordination and mobility, were terrifying. Leprosy was considered to be a fate worse than death, and it was a death without a funeral.
Those who were declared to be unclean with leprosy were immediately forbidden to return to their own homes and family. They were forbidden to enter any village, or town, or city. They were required to disfigure their hair, to cover the lower part of their face, to wear torn clothing, even to wear a special kind of bell that would alert anyone near them, and to shout, in the presence of other people, “Away! Away! Unclean! Unclean!”
Their disease was so terrifying that God’s people were taught by God’s law to consider lepers to be dead. But there was no funeral for them. No one spoke loving or encouraging words in their presence.
Leprosy was considered a punishment from God. Only God could make a person into a leper, and only God could heal a leper. A leper was unclean, and that meant he or she was polluted, but the pollution was spiritual.
Death itself, was a spiritual condition. All humans died and returned to the earth because all humans carried the weight of sin. In handling a dead body, you needed to prevent yourself from touching it, skin to skin, even when you were washing the body. Otherwise you became spiritually unclean.
Your uncleanness, even though it was a spiritual condition, was contagious. If you touched a body, you were unclean for seven days, and you, yourself, became untouchable.
You were prohibited from touching others or being touched for seven days, and then you had to wash from head to foot. You had to bath completely before you were clean again. Failure to bathe meant that you had to wait seven more days and then bathe in order to become officially clean again.
When you touched a dead body, skin to skin, you carried the weight of death upon you. You were a danger to everyone around you.
The uncleanness of leprosy carried the weight of the walking dead, the living dead. Those who touched the walking, living dead, carried the weight of that uncleanness upon them. They would probably hear no good words from anyone because they became so dangerous and scary.
I’m not going to say any more about this, except to say that Jesus touched the walking, living dead, skin to skin, when he healed the leper. During his ministry, Jesus repeatedly handled the walking dead.
Jesus touched the lepers. Upon himself, Jesus walked under the weight of death. He wore, like a badge of honor, the uncleanness of the walking dead.
This formed a clear pattern in Jesus’ life. This pattern reveals the nature and the very purpose of the great power we call the gospel. Gospel means good news. The pattern of Jesus taking on himself the contagion of the walking dead shows us what his good news means for us. Touching the lepers shows what Jesus does for us, and for everyone.
There’s still another strange law, found in Deuteronomy (21:23). It says, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” (See, also Galatians 3:13.) The Jews of Jesus’ time saw the Roman cross as a kind of execution tree that carried the uncleanness of a cursed death.
When Jesus touched the walking, living dead, skin to skin, he took upon himself the weight of the curse of their death.
You can see the pattern. You can see how it goes all the way through the good news. It became the passion of Jesus to carry that weight, and he bore more and more of it until he died and hung on the cursed tree of the cross, as though he carried every curse for everyone in the world.
That is God’s salvation given by God to us, when we trust him and put our faith in him; in him alone and above all else. To be saved is to be rescued by God from the curse of death, which is also the contagious curse of sin. Jesus carried it all, in our place, as our substitute.
I believe that, as we are inspired by the love and faithfulness of God in Christ, our partnership in that love and faithfulness can help us to carry, for others, the weight that they carry because of their sin. Because of the human nature we share with others, and because of the nature of Jesus’ touch upon us, we all belong to the walking, living dead and we also belong to God. We, like Jesus, can bridge the gap, and our lives can touch the lives of others in a healing saving way.
Lepers couldn’t enter the Tabernacle of God. Later on, they couldn’t enter the Temple, in Jerusalem, that King Solomon built, and which was rebuilt by King Herod, as the time of Jesus’ birth and life and sacrifice came near. They were banned from the house and presence of God.
As hard as this was upon them, and as unfair as it seems, the lepers were God’s picture of what we all are. And without the healing that only God can give, we cannot come into the house and presence of God. The Jews knew that only God could heal a leper.
So, leprosy truly couldn’t keep God away from them, but it kept them away from God. So, leprosy was a picture of sin. Sin doesn’t prevent God from coming to us and touching us, but it keeps us from coming to God and touching him.
Until God makes us clean, until Jesus carries the curse, we remain the walking, living dead. We may be able to know something, but it’s never enough to open the gate to the place where we see God’s face and know God’s heart, as given to us in Jesus.
When we have seen God’s face and known God’s heart, then we can follow where God went, in Jesus, and we can carry help others to carry their curse, their loss, their separation from God. We can touch them and carry them to Jesus.
It’s the mercy of God that we normally can’t see into people’s hearts or read their minds. People are deep, deep mysteries.
Why, we can hardly understand ourselves. The curse in us, and in others, is mostly hidden as well. God’s grace carries and covers our own curse is hidden from us. Otherwise we might get too discouraged to walk with Jesus to the end, and enter the gate to life and God.
So, by the mercy of God, we can touch other people, and other people need this more than they know; just as we need to be touched more than we know. We can touch them and pass on to them, through Jesus, what they need: at least a little bit of what they need.
We see what this is like when Jesus met the leper.
The leper was so used to being completely terrorizing to everyone that he risked his own death by coming to the crowd that followed Jesus. It seems as though there were always loose rocks lying around, everywhere in those days. The crowd could have grabbed those rocks and pitched them, hard as they could, at the leper, till he died. He was endangering them all so they harbored their right to endanger him.
Jesus always knew, and always knows, what’s going on. He knew this danger for what it was, the moment it came.
Maybe the crowd was so startled by the leper’s bold behavior that they were paralyzed with fear or shock. So, Jesus stepped in right away. This may have scared the leper himself.
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” No one had been willing to do anything for him since the diagnosis was first announced by the local priest. The leper did need to know that he needed someone who was willing to take care of him and help him.
You may know someone who is a leper without knowing it. Somehow, they live in a world where no one has shown a willingness to help them. No one has followed through.
There is probably someone around you who needs your willingness. God will help you recognize that person.
Jesus would have let himself be touched by someone who was unclean. It was bound to happen.
There are people whom we don’t want to come near to us, let alone touch us. The conventional wisdom of the world tells us that this is the smart thing to do. It can be very hard work to let yourself be so touched by such a person.
You may not be able to succeed to make that person touching you be changed by love. You may not have the resources to make a real difference. Then you may let them go, and pray and learn what you can from that experience. But God will help you to recognize someone who needs you, yourself, to let their life touch yours.
We read, here, that “Jesus was filled with compassion”. “Filled with compassion” is an odd word that literally means that his guts were wrenched, and twisted inside him. Has anyone ever tied your guts in a knot? Welcome to the world of the love of Jesus.
That’s what you get. Don’t be surprised.
But it was strangely the gut wrenching feeling of love. My mom would say, about the time when she was falling for my dad, that the thought of seeing him made her sick.
God’s love, when it takes human form, in Jesus, or in us, can be that way. Our touching and being touched (and how we feel about it, and worry about it) can make us sick inside. This may be the way that we experience a new level of true love that we have never felt before. Have you felt this?
We read that, “Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning.” So Jesus’ guts were tied in a love knot, and what we hear from him next is almost a shout. It’s almost yelling. It’s almost anger. When you study these phrases, you find out that this may truly be so: the anger and the warning of love.
Jesus warned the healed man to show himself to the priest. There was a seven-day-long process that began with walking up to a Jewish priest in your village and saying, “You know that I was a leper, but now I’m healed”. Then the priest has to give you a complete check-up to see if you look healed. Then you get locked up for seven days and then you get another check-up. Then, on the eighth day, you offer a sacrifice to God for the official completion and recognition of your healing. Then you may go, or try to go, back to the life and the loved ones you left behind, if you can.
But no one could treat you like a healed leper, and stop treating you like the walking, living dead you once were, until the work of the enclosure, and the inspection, and the sacrifice were done. The leper whom Jesus healed didn’t do that.
Some people are so desperate to deny their true need that they refuse to take a course of medication to the end. Or, they refuse to carry out their physical therapy to the end. They deny their past reality. They deny their need to go all the way, and see their healing through. Jesus got mad because he knew that this is what the healed leper would do. He wouldn’t follow his own healing to the end.
It’s right to warn someone, and it’s right to show anger, if you recognize the danger of someone not completing the good work of God within them. It’s part of your God-given responsibility, even though you can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. But that is the patience of the faithful love of God for us and for others.
This is the responsibility of the love God calls us to. We see our calling to this kind of love in the faithful responsibility that Jesus showed.
We do this by following in the footsteps of his love. We do this through our direct fellowship with Jesus, and that means the power of his partnership and his investment in us, through his Holy Spirit.
This comes from the good news, the great news, of Jesus. It’s just like the good news of hearing Jesus say to you: “If you would come after me, then you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) This happens when you know the passion of Jesus for you, and for others, and when you carry that passionate new heart within you.
The fullness of the passionate love of Jesus can be a disturbing love. When you meet this love, it can fill you up, and empower you to do amazing things. It sets the passion of Jesus free within you. Others can see you moving and that you are truly alive.

That is what salvation means. That is the good news.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

To the Cross - Where Life Imitates Christ

Preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Scripture readings: Micah 6:6-8; Mark 12:28-34
There are six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments in the Jewish Torah (our first five books of the Bible). They all had to be followed and kept. Six-hundred-and-thirteen commandments: It’s a mind-numbing number, or else it makes for a wonderful puzzle or game.
Walking along the Columbia River at Desert Aire
Late afternoon, January, 2018
I know some of you love puzzles. You love putting each of a thousand things in their proper place. But there was a wonderful puzzle or game that the Jewish rabbis and the Pharisees loved to play. It was the game called: “Which is the most important commandment?”
You can see the game way back in Micah. Out of a dozen nearly impossible and terrible possible requirements, what does the Lord really require of you? Of course, Micah wins the game by cheating. He gives us three requirements: Do justice (or live justly); love mercy (which is also translated as kindness); and walk humbly with your God.
The Pharisees played the same old game with Jesus. “Which is the most important requirement?” Jesus also wins the game in the time-honored way of Micah: by cheating. Jesus makes the greatest commandment into two; or the two greatest into one.
But what does he say about these two? Matthew expands (a little bit) on what Jesus actually said about the two: he says that they are alike. (Matthew 22:34)
They are alike! But how can loving God and loving your neighbor be alike? How can they be the same, or nearly the same? The very teacher who started the game agreed with Jesus, and strung them both together into one single commandment.
Both commandments are about love. Both commandments together have a way of putting all the ways of love into one single love-package.
Some people try keeping the two apart. You’ve met people who talk about their love for the Lord, but they’re not very loving to people.
I knew a girl in college who quoted the apostle Paul for her motto in life. She went around “speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) That’s what she claimed that she was doing. Well, she certain spoke the truth all the time: all the time! And when you were around her very much, because she was very pretty, you wanted to wince and tell her, “Please, Christy! Please stop doing that.”
I’ve known some who separated their love in the opposite way. They loved people (or said they did) and they hated God. God didn’t nearly live up to their standards.
Micah makes God’s three requirements into one single love-package as well. You need to know that the words for judgement and justice have two sides to them. There’s a justice and a judgement that is punitive. It punishes wrong-doers. Then there’s the kind of justice and judgement that is restorative. The judge restores what has been taken, or lost, or deserved.
Punitive justice makes some people very happy. If what was taken, or harmed, or lost cannot be restored, then victims often take the side of punitive justice.
In the brutal Middle East, some of the most brutalized and bereaved Christians are famous for forgiving the perpetrators of the violence around them. Of course (to the perpetrators) forgiveness is a sign of weakness. No amount of love can excuse an infidel for their irreverent claim that God has a son named Jesus, and that God is simply like Jesus: not even if those Christians truly succeed in the discipline of acting like Jesus.
In Micah’s love-package, the justice must fit the pattern of mercy (which is also translated as kindness). Justice must conform to mercy and humility, so it’s probably all about righting the wrongs done to people, and forgiving all of the wrongs done by people, by restoring what has been lost, or by healing what has been broken.
God’s restorative judgement was carried out on the cross, where Jesus forgave us, and where Jesus also forgave his enemies, just as he asks us to do.
Micah’s three requirements are a love-package in three parts: the restorative justice looks backwards and heals and replaces the past with healing, grace, life, love, fullness, newness. It makes your abominable past into the productive past of a child of God. Kindness and mercy look forward to the future. It’s like the title of the sad movie “Pay It Forward.” You send your mercy and kindness, shown in the present, to do its work in the future. So future and past are both held together by the humility, and the grace, and the joy of the kingdom of God: walking humbly with your God.
Sometimes it almost kills me to be a forgiver. And that’s right because forgiving the sins of the world killed Jesus on the cross. You have to swallow your pride and it almost gags you to do it.
Swallowing your pride is how you walk humbly with your God. Swallowing your pride doesn’t mean hating yourself. Humility means loving God more than yourself, and loving others as yourself. It could mean simply to love fully, and not to measure any of your loves at all. To love without measure is the humblest love of all.
Lent, and the road to the cross, and to the empty grave of Jesus, is this discipline of walking humbly with God. If we know anything about God, we Christians know that God is like Jesus. “He who has seen me has seen the father.” (John 14:9)
We take up our cross and follow a Jesus-like God. This is what Lent is about. It’s the discipline of walking with Jesus to the cross. It’s also about the Jesus-like God who’s Holy Spirit empowers us to walk so humbly with our God.

The ashes of Lent and the Lord’s Supper are the love-package of Jesus. It holds everything together and there is so much in that package that it fills you up when you receive it: but only if you receive it all.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Passionate Jesus - Taking Our Heights and Depths

Preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018

Scripture readings: Isaiah 40:1-5; Mark 1:1-13

Walk to the Feather River, at Live Oak CA
Just before New Years, 2918
One of my favorite Christian authors is G. K. Chesterton, and he was also a famous humorist. He wrote: “The test of a good religion is whether you can joke about it.”
So, there was a Methodist Pastor and a Baptist Pastor arguing about baptism. The Baptist insisted that the only true baptism was by complete immersion. The Methodist had a question about this: “Wouldn’t it be OK if you baptized a person up to their waist.” “No, the waist isn’t what counts.” “What about the shoulders, if you dipped them up to their shoulders, wouldn’t that be enough? That’s a lot of water?” “No! No! for true baptism the shoulders don’t count.” “What about up to the nose? That’s where the breath of life comes in and out?” “No, no, no, no, no! The nose does not count!” “Then, what about the top of the head? Is that what really counts?” “Yes! Yes! That’s what I’ve been saying all along. The top of the head in baptism is what counts!”
And the Methodist Pastor said: “Well, then; if it’s the top of the head that really counts, that’s the way I’ve been baptizing all along!”
In the Gospel of Mark, we’ve read about both the baptism and the temptation of Jesus. When we’ve read about these same two stories of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, we know three times more than Mark tells us. The temptation takes on a life of its own in Matthew and Luke, and we may even wonder why Mark left so much of the temptation out.
The odd thing about Mark seems to be that, when you read Mark’s telling of it, the baptism and the temptation of Jesus blend into each other. They become extensions of each other. It becomes the same story.
In Mark, the temptation is not a separate event from the baptism; and neither the baptism nor the temptation is separate from the cross. About a half of the whole Gospel of Mark is the story of the road to the cross.
Mark starts this way: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “Gospel” means good news. No document or book had ever been called a gospel before. Mark really, simply meant that what he was writing about in his scroll was all good news from beginning to end, because of who Jesus is, and what he has accomplished, is all good news for us. But, since Mark came first, the other disciples decided that, when they wrote about Jesus, their books would have to be gospels too.
What we sometimes forget is that everything in a gospel is also the gospel. Everything related to our Lord and Savior, all of his words and all of his accomplishments are good news, because they all lead to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus the Son of God. They all lead to our salvation and transformation.
The fact that Jesus was baptized is good news for us because it belongs to the good news of the cross and the resurrection. The fact that Jesus was tempted is good news because it belongs to the good news of the cross and the resurrection.
Baptism was the place where the stained and the dirty were washed. Baptism was the place to come when you needed to be born again into a new life, heart, mind, and soul. Jesus didn’t need any of that, but he gave us good news by coming to share with us the place where we need to come.
Jesus came to the place where we need to be clean, where we need to be born again, where we need to die and be brought back to life again. This is good news for us. It’s a picture of Jesus as our savior. It’s the record of Jesus accomplishing his purpose in each of those great needs of ours. Our needs were met in what Jesus truly did.
This good news belongs to the cross, because the cross was the place where those who deserved to die were given a slow and painful, punishing death. In the Gospels we see the good news of Jesus getting himself where he didn’t belong because our sins have a deadly effect on ourselves, and on the world around us. We wound others and we get wounded with hurts that really don’t go away.
Even when our broken bones heal and we become stronger in our broken places, doctors can see where the old break is. Even if we can’t see it ourselves, we may feel it. Maybe our old break predicts the weather now.
Then there are the breaks that may heal and yet they might also come back. A broken shoulder or an injured knee may haunt us again, many years into the future. The bad news is that we can never wipe away old breaks in ourselves or in others. We can never make them as if they had never happened.
The good news is that Jesus can go to the places where we have damaged others, or have been damaged by them. For our sake Jesus has gone to all the places where he didn’t need to go, but he went there for us, to be there with us, in order to wipe away what we cannot.
The cross is the place for the things that cannot be undone, the things that are deadly, the things that are mortal sickness and death. Jesus goes to the place of punishment on the cross in order to make us clean, in order to wipe away what cannot be undone. The baptism and the cross of Jesus are part of one good thing that we call the good news.
Because the baptism of Jesus is the first good news that Mark shares with us, and because it’s the first step of Jesus to the good news of the cross and the resurrection, we should realize that we are on a good news road from beginning to end. So, temptation is good news. No, that can’t be right! And yet it is right.
You know that when we get hard of hearing, our deafness usually doesn’t begin all at once all across all sounds and pitches. When I did farm work, when I was young, some days I would come home with my ears ringing, depending on whether I was using some really noisy machinery. You might ask: “Why didn’t you wear ear plugs?” Well, if you used ear plugs, you wouldn’t hear the quiet sound of something getting stuck or broken. If I begin to lose my hearing, it will probably start with the pitches of the noise those harvest machines made long ago. I understand that, when you’ve been married for a long time, one of the first pitches a man loses is the pitch of his wife’s voice.
Because sin is like deafness, we (who are deaf in the wrong places) think that temptation is the voice of the evil one luring and drawing us to the dark side, the selfish side. That’s wrong. When you read the longer temptation stories of Matthew and Luke, you realize that temptation always has two voices.
Jesus heard the voice of Satan, and Jesus heard the voice of the Father. We know this because his Father’s voice came out when Jesus answered the magnetic voice of the devil. When the devil spoke, Jesus answered with the words of God. He answered the Devil with scripture. But the scripture of the Bible is the voice of God. The Bible is, in so many ways, the test of how we recognize the good voice, the saving voice, the voice of love.
It is a test. Temptation has two voices. Temptation isn’t only the seductive attraction of evil, or sin, or selfishness, or compromise. Temptation tests which voice you want to hear. Jesus had no trouble making sense of the two voices and choosing what was right, and rejecting what was wrong. Jesus had no problem making sense of the voice, to know what was love, and what was defection and unfaithfulness.
Temptation was good news because Jesus went to be with us, where we need him to be. Jesus becomes the voice of God amplified within us, because he embodies the love of God. Jesus is the one who comes to our rescue, and rescue is what salvation is all about.
When Jesus went to the place of the cross, he went to the place where he cried, “Why have your forsaken me?” He wasn’t really forsaken, but he carried our deafness and our blindness on the cross. He came to the place where we live when we can only hear the wrong voice, and not the voice of love. The cross is the place where the wrong voice is finally silenced, and you can say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
This is not the place of death, as it may seem.
To know that your Father is there and holding onto you, and to be able to say “It is finished” is life. “It is finished” is only another ancient way to say: “Everything is whole. Everything is put back together. Everything is where it belongs and makes sense. It’s all good at last.”
The cross is the good news that temptation has life beyond it. The good news is that temptation is not the final word. There is the place where, because Jesus passed the test, he will hold onto us from the cross and we will pass the test with him. He will be close enough to us, on the cross, so that we can here God’s voice: the voice of love.
The baptism and the temptation being one story tells us that Christians can get into a lot of trouble by following Jesus. Of course, some of our Christian trouble comes from living down to the world’s low expectations. The world expects Christians to think they are God’s favorites and that we will be accusers instead of being rescuers.
The name “Satan” actually means accuser and enemy. And Christians have the reputation of being that in this world.
When we remember how the Lord comes to our rescue, we will show our friendship with Jesus by coming to the rescue of others, because rescue is what salvation is all about. Rescuers always go to the place where the other people need them.
We really did need Jesus, and Jesus came to us where we were and (even now) Jesus comes to us where we are: because we haven’t stopped needing him, and we never will stop.
If we remember this, we will go to where other people are, and we will act like people who have come to help and to serve them. We will do that with our neighbors, with our communities, and with our nation, and with our world.
We will not be there to judge or to accuse. We will be there to help. We will be there in order to bring the image of what Jesus wants. Whether we seem to succeed, or seem to fail, we will work to make our world into a rescuing place. We will do this with the power that comes from having Jesus as our rescuer.
The world needs this. The people of the world will not admit this is so. Jesus teaches us that this is so, and he came to the rescue of many who refused him. In Jesus we have the will, and the patience, and the peace to do the same, if we will come to the water with Jesus and rise with him.
Then we will rise out of the water, and step onto the road with Jesus, and we will hear the voice that says, “This is my son, this is my daughter, in whom I take delight.”
Whether we were baptized as babies, or as grown-ups, we came to the waters to wash all our sweat, and stink, and dirt away. We went through the waters and we came out like babies squeezing out of the waters of the womb to a brand-new life. Like the drowning victim who goes into the water, and dies, and must be brought out and given the breath of life again, we came to the waters to be saved from death and all the other evils of this sad world.

We came to the waters just as we come to the Lord’s Table. Here the Lord, who died and rose from the dead, feeds us with his life that will never end. We come to this table like children who should have been sent to our rooms but we had our sentence lifted and so we come to the table. This table is where our home really has its center and its heart, just as the real heart of our life is at the great feast in the kingdom of God, in the new heavens and the new earth.