The church I serve, Lane Memorial United Methodist Church, recent launched our new website, which is, incidentally, based in WordPress.  Thus, it allows for a blog section there.  Since I primarily post my sermons, that website is a great place to host my blog.  I tried for a couple of weeks of posting to both this blog and the church website blog, and it was just too time consuming.

Therefore, I would like to direct you to the new location of Unapologetic Doxology:  http://www.lanememorialumc.org/blog/

I do not plan on removing this site, since there are some sites who have linked to some of my posts on this blog, and I would like to keep those blogs intact.

Further, given the appointment system, there will come a time where I will not be the pastor at Lane, and I will potentially return to this site for content.

For the few of you who subscribe to this blog, if you’d like to continue receiving email notifications about my blog posts, head over to my Blog on Lane UMC’s website.  There is a box, similar to the one on this site, that will allow you to subscribe.

Thanks to all who have read here, and I hope you will continue to read!  Having the blog as part of the church website may in fact increase the volume of my posts, so this could be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it.

I hope you’ll check out my most recent post on the new site about Unstable Christians.

Thanks,

Alan

 

I have a friend who is good at working with his hands, especially with wood.  He’s so good with wood, in fact, that his pastor asked him to build a large cross for use during a Lenten program his church is doing called 24 Hours by a United Methodist Minister named Adam Hamilton.  What I love about my friend is that as he began to plan out this work, he began to wonder what it must have taken to build one of these things in the time when they were the torture and execution preference of the Roman government.

He began to research the kinds of tools that would have been used to craft one of these horrible devices, and to see if there were ways he might be able to replicate some of the methods.  He wanted to see how authentic he could make it.  When he told me about this, I told him that he really ought to create a blog to track such a project.  What a journey it must be during the Lenten season to actually build a cross.  Why did I find this project so compelling?

I found it compelling because the cross, the cross that we “lift high” the cross that we “take up,” is one of the central symbols of who we are as Christians.[1]  We may not agree on much with some other groups of Christians, but most every Christian group has a cross somewhere in their church.  And those churches who have completely removed crosses from their sanctuaries because they bum their congregations out too much did so to great cries of concern from brother and sister churches.  But generally, there are crosses everywhere.  There are crosses on my stole.  There are crosses on the altar.  Many of you have crosses hung from your necks. There are crosses all around our church.  We have a cross over the altar that is metal.  The cross in the fellowship hall is wooden. The crosses on my stole are made of thread.

There are crosses everywhere at our church and at most churches.  We bear this cross as a mark of our identity.  We bear the cross as a mark of who we are and whose we are.  The cross is a rich symbol that carries a multitude of meanings within itself.  Many of us bear oil crosses on our forehead at our baptism as a sign of the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.  Just a week ago we bore ash crosses on our foreheads as a sign both of our mortality and marking us as ones who have entered into Christ’s death, so that we might have a share in his resurrection.  Crosses are everywhere…and yet…

To see what my friend is doing, slowing down and considering the creation of this cross, I wonder in our multitude of cross, if a large share of those meanings of the cross has been lost on us?  We also experience crosses as ubiquitous.  They are everywhere.  The easy shot to take here would be at rappers who wear large ornate diamond studded crosses, which, compared to the Old Rugged Cross are riddled with irony.  But let’s step back from the easy shot and turn the camera back on ourselves.  It is easy enough to point fingers at other people who wear crosses, but don’t follow through with lives that seem to be Cross and Christ-shaped.  What about us, who wear these crosses around our neck, who set them in our places of gathering and worship, who actually claim to be ones who recognize and embrace this cross as a symbol of our redemption?

Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to bear the cross?  Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to wear, to accessorize with the cross.  It is an object that is an instrument of execution and death.  What does it mean to accessorize with an instrument of torture?  If were to translate it into contemporary terms, if we saw someone wearing a little needle or a little electric chair around their necks we would receive that persson bearing such objects as jewelry as at best having a sick sense of humor and at worst having some deep-seated issues.  Why would you wear an instrument of death and execution around your neck?  Why would we lift it high?  One of the first gifts Mary Alex received on the day of her baptism was a little cross around her neck.  Why would we do that?  How are we to handle this?

Perhaps that a cross would be received at a baptism may help us to understand how it comes to be that we wear this object of death, this instrument of pain, around our necks.  Our baptism is the place where we God claims us and grace begins to work in us.  When we respond to that grace, we begin the life of discipleship.  The Gospel lesson today is really about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus begins to describe to the disciples that he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter won’t stand for this.  Mark tells us that Peter “pulls Jesus aside,” and tries to rebuke Jesus privately.  As we have seen before, this isn’t the kind of Messiah Peter was looking for.

Yet, to deny this piece of Jesus’ life is to become an adversary, which is what the word and name “Satan” literally means.  And so Jesus rebukes Peter publicly.  Further, Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples, but he tells the whole crowd exactly what it means to be a follower, to be a disciple.  It is to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.  When we respond to the grace of our baptism that is the beginning of discipleship, and it is the beginning of we picking up our cross and beginning to follow Jesus.

Lent is the perfect time to begin to consider what it means to reflect on picking up our crosses because it is the season where we intentionally focus on our discipleship in way that we often don’t during the rest of the year.  Lent is the time when we become the most conscious of Jesus’ call to take up our cross because it is the time when we are following him to his cross.  This has been true in the church for a long time. In the early church, those who were preparing to be baptized would be the most focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  About the responses they would give and the actions they would take in their baptism.  40 days seems like a long time to wait for a baptism, but in reality it took more like 2 or 3 years of preparation before a person could be baptized and be a part of the church.  Before you could be baptized, you had to learn how to live and act like a Christian.

We tend to think of it in the reverse, with the heart experience leading our changed behaviors.  However, in the early church, changing of one’s behavior was part and parcel of the change they were experiencing in their heart.  So, by the time the Lent before their baptism rolled around, they had already been reflecting on what it means to be a disciple, to take up their cross and follow Christ.  Lent was a deeper, intentional time leading up to their full reception of life in the church and their first admittance to receive Holy Communion.  Lent was a time when they would prepare to answer questions that are pretty close to what we who are baptized have answered ourselves.[2]

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”[3]  That’s first question we ask when we are baptizing someone.  In the early church, they would actually have to face the west and renounce “Satan and all his pomp.”  As we join Jesus in the wilderness, we encounter the temptations.  But the temptation isn’t just to do explicitly evil things.  No, the temptations we experience are much more sinister.  After all, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” isn’t because Peter is asking Jesus to go out and steal from other people.  No, Peter wants Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that is the conquering the Romans and ruling the world sort of Messiah.  He wants Jesus to take over.  He wants to be part of the people who run things.  He wants to rule the Romans.  It is the kind of dominance we see Satan offer Jesus in the wilderness in the other Gospels.

It’s that kind of dominance that we still tempted with.  The temptation to skip all of that suffering stuff and just get to Easter.  The temptation to try to keep our own security and power in the world by trying o take over things, forcing others to see things our way, as opposed to offering up all the power we think we have to be weak in Jesus, who rules the world by suffering and dying on a cross.  It is that kind of control that Jesus rejects in the wilderness, and it is the kind of control that leads Jesus to see Peter as an adversary.

The next question we ask is, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil?”[4]  The freedom and the power God gives us to resist evil.  This question assumes that we need both freedom and power to resist evil.  The General Rules of the United Methodist Church basically say, “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Attend Upon the Ordinances of God.”  In addition to simply feeding people who are hungry, we begin to ask why they are hungry in the first place.  Are there structural things in our society that keep people hungry, that keep them in poverty?

I guarantee you when we begin to resist those structures, not everyone will take kindly to it.  We need freedom and power to resist evil in the world because to do that means not just that we “behave” ourselves, but it actually may mean getting into some trouble.  It will mean bearing a cross and being rejected by many.  It means we will look different.  We will look weird.  We will not fit in.

The third question we ask is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord?”[5]  To do this means that we pick up our cross, that we are willing to following Jesus in that cross bearing.  It isn’t just an intellectual assent or an emotional change in our lives, but it is a re-ordering of our lives based on Jesus’ love those who are the “least of these.”  It means that we are willing to resist evil by changing the way that we live in the world.

The final question we ask is, “Will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”[6]  What does it mean to do that?  Jesus tells us exactly what it means in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Lose our life for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Gospels.  Deny ourselves in favor of others is how we represent Jesus.  In short, that is what it means to be a faithful member of Christ’s Holy Church and be his representative in the world.  We do this because in losing our life we actually find it, rather than being ashamed of this Savior who seems so weak that we have to make him look strong.

In my opinion, one of the scariest movements today in many Christian circles is one that suggests that Jesus has become too weak and too “feminized.”  Jesus is just not strong enough , and so they want to emphasize what they see as Jesus’ more masculine traits, with paintings in their churches of Jesus whipping the money-changers out of the temple.  The problem with that interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t fit into the categories that we want to create for him and for ourselves.  Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, and so ours is.  Jesus conquers the world by saving it with his own weakness.

To bear our cross, to take up our cross, is a paradox now, even as it was in Jesus time.  Even as it is a symbol of government oppression and execution, we also experience it as a sign of Jesus’ victory.  Peter was horrified at what Jesus said because it is a paradox that the one who is the Messiah, this Son of Man the one who came to save Israel and the world would do so by suffering and dying.

In the same way the cross stands as this paradox that we would “lift high” the cross.  That this symbol of death, pain, and torture could become a symbol of love.  A symbol of victory.  A symbol of life.  How powerful is that this instrument of death could become a sign of life and victory?  A stumbling block the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, right?  It is the just the same as the paradox that we find our lives by losing them for the sake of one another and the sake of the Gospel.

It is the same kind of paradox that will allow us later in the service to sing about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as a “dance.”  Read the word when we sing “Lord the Dance,” later in the service.  It is a very upbeat, even whimsical tune, that folks love to sing, but it is describing in some parts events that are horrible.  Yet, we sing it joyfully because in it we hear the story of our life that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The difference between wearing a cross around our necks and wearing a little electric chair is that the cross has been transformed by the one who hung upon it, and the one who calls us and helps us to bear our crosses in the world.


[1] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 68.

[2] “Worship Notes – Calendar,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:  http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3879973/k.9C35/Lectionary_Planning_Helps_for_Sundays.htm, cited March 4, 2012.

[3] United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

It was only a couple of months ago that we were reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, and what it means for our own baptism.  Here, in our Gospel lesson today, Mark tells us what happens next.  One might think that after such a powerful event in which Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved Son is revealed, as we see that God is revealed to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that the next logical step would be to immediately rush into public ministry.  Instead, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.

As we have seen, Mark is his concise in his description.  Within the forty days, there is no grand dialogue between Satan and Jesus.  Instead, Mark only mentions that Jesus was “tempted by Satan” in the wilderness.  The sparse view of the scene we receive also lets us know that “Jesus was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”

Mark gives us so little information, and yet it is clear that something is different before and after the wilderness.  In his Baptism, Jesus’ identity has been revealed and his mission initiated.  After he emerges from the wilderness, Jesus picks up here John, who has been arrested, has left off, proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”[1]  The difference, of course, between John’s proclamation and Jesus’ is that John was pointing to Jesus, but when Jesus says, “the kingdom of God has come near,” he is pointing to himself.

Jesus’ presence, as he emerges from the wilderness finds those he encounters, and us, as the one whom the voice from heaven named as God’s beloved.  It is an encounter with the Kingdom of God because it is found in him and he embodies it by his very life.  And yet, he feels the need to go into the wilderness.  We also find ourselves beckoned there by him.

For many of us, this isn’t how we would have our first experience after baptism and/or join the church. We are part of the community, we have received our baptism, and we are ready to get to work.  And yet, before Jesus begins his public ministry, is driven to the wilderness.  Why would we follow Jesus into the wilderness, besides the obvious that he bids us to follow him wherever he may go? Why walk with Jesus into the wilderness?

I had a friend in seminary who thought that Lent was foolishness.  He wasn’t from a liturgical tradition, which is certainly fine because not everyone is.  But he would always wonder aloud, “Why are you all spending forty days feelin’ all bad all the time?”  For him Lent was the ultimate bummer.  He wondered why, if we have the joy of Jesus Christ in our lives, should we spend forty days bumming ourselves out?  Perhaps that is not what is happening in Lent.  It may appear that way to those who are not familiar with the practices.

Perhaps it suggests that the joy that comes in the Lord is more than just being happy all the time.  Perhaps it suggests that going out in the wilderness from time to time is part and parcel of being shaped like Jesus.   We find ourselves beckoned to the wilderness, not just because Jesus is there, but because we know that God shows up in the wilderness.  A quick look at the history of God’s people, in the story of Israel as well as the Church we see again and again that God shows up in the wilderness.

Even as the Israelites wander through the desert, God is ahead of them and behind them.  When the early church experienced the wilderness of martyrdom, it was an incredible time of growth in the life of the Church.  So, we find ourselves confronted by a call to the wilderness, even as we find ourselves confronted with the fact that we live in a society consumed with consuming, and things like Lent doesn’t make much money.  A call that finds us being shaped differently.  A call that suggests that to come to waters of baptism, while we receive our new identity there, it is an identity that we will spend the rest of our lives living into.  And so we journey together into the wilderness, preparing for the great feast of Easter.

The first way that we enter into this preparation is we shape ourselves different as a worshiping community.  We still gather together.  We still proclaim the resurrection each time we gather together as church on Sunday.  And yet, we operate differently.  We mark time differently.  For example, that we don’t stop doing Holy Communion during Lent, but you may have noticed on Ash Wednesday, and you will notice the next time we share Communion that we will not sing the Communion responses during Lent.

It is a way to continue to practice, and at the same time it is to recognize Lent as a “lean” time, a time of introspection, of change.  It is a time where we continue our practices, even as we recognize that we are walking with Jesus in the wilderness.  The result of this is that when we gather together on Easter and meet at the table, after we walked with Jesus to the cross, after we have followed Jesus to the grave, and after we emerge with Jesus from the tomb, our song of Christ’s saving body and blood shall again ring out!

Another way that we mark this time differently is by the practice of “burying” our alleluias.  “Alleluia” is a word that is deeply associated with Easter.  Therefore, when we are in Lent, we bury it, we covered it, and we live together knowing that the Allelluia is still there, but we are preparing to shout it on Easter.  We still proclaim the resurrection each week, but we know we are walking with Jesus in the wilderness.  It a time of barrenness.  It is a time of denying ourselves.  Futher, we know that as we mark time differently as a community, we also mark it different individually.

We “give up” things for Lent.”  Not to show how righteous we are.  Not to prove how much we love Jesus.  Rather, we deny ourselves during Lent in order to remind ourselves of our utter dependence on Christ, that we “do not live by bread alone.”  In doing that we open ourselves up to the Spirit’s re-shaping of who we are.  Lent is a time of refining where the dross is burned away in fires of self-denial and the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, when we give up things for Lent, we must be clear that this is not an endurance trial.  Remember, Naaman expected some sort of difficult trial in order to receive healing.  And yet, he only had to wash in the river seven times.  Lenten disciplines are not an endurance trial.  If we just fast, and we don’t replace that time of eating with prayer, then we are undertaking nothing more than a holy diet.  Even more deeply, we are called to reflect on the reality that as we gather together and as we seek individually to observe a Holy Lent that we must also be careful to not let our practices be distorted in such a way as to contribute more deeply to those thoughts and actions that oppress and destroy us.

One of the biggest concerns that I’ve seen raised, and I think this person is right, is that Lenten disciples, such as fasting, are a time-honored holy tradition, yet they can also carry with it some potential hazards.  About a year ago I read a blog entry from one of my favorite professors in seminary, who raise a very important question, which is, as your pastor, as a I call us to this season of self-emptying, could I be contributing to your oppression and destruction?[2]  I thought of this particularly about women, some of whom have been told from an “early age to bite their tongue and offer their food.”[3]

Lent is about becoming more human, not less human.  Christian virtue is about moving towards a mean.[4]  Lent is about embracing Christ as the beginning and end of our lives. Perhaps, for some of you among us, men and women both, there are things that we need to give up or take on to become more human.  And that might not always mean stopping eating.  For some of us, it may mean to begin eating.  This same professor in seminary speaks of a time when she recommended that a young woman with body image issues bake herself cookies every day during Lent.  For this woman, such a discipline became a time of healing, even though we might at first glance consider her actions a sign of indulgence.

Or perhaps we find ourselves in Lent giving up our own sense of entitlement.  I have two friends that I am planning on paying close attention to this Lenten season.  One fellow pastor has committed to live using only the equivalent amount of money that she would get from food stamps.  That’s $30 a week, by the way.  The other is a guy I went to seminary with who gave up his house for Lent and has resolved to live as a homeless person during Lent.[5]  Giving up the things that separate ourselves from Christ and from one another.  This is to become more human.

Even as I fast myself at different times, even as I recommend fasting to others, I also wonder about the places that my recommendations might do damage.  What does it do to a group of people, who see television commercials, constantly telling them “DON’T EAT!” to say, “For Lent, don’t eat”?[6]  The worse thing I could do as your pastor is to baptize that message without qualification.  Perhaps the fast to which some of us are called is to fast from doing things that destroy us.  From running ourselves ragged.  Perhaps our fast must be from busyness.   Perhaps it is for those who have felt unable to speak for one reason or another to give voice to the pain that is within them.

The question before us as we begin this Lenten journey, as we follow Jesus to the cross, to the tomb, and to the resurrection, is “What do I need to give up to become more human?”  More human in the way God intended us to be.  Human in the way that Jesus makes possible because he himself became like us and draws us into his perfect body.  What are thing things we need to give up to become more human?

Additionally, one of the pieces of Lent that is often left out is almsgiving.  When we give up something that costs money, we aren’t called to just pocket it that money.  That would be “holy budgeting.”  Instead, the money that we save from our fast should be given to those in need.  So, one of the challenges that we have before us during this Lenten season is that if we do give up something during this season, is to save that money, and to contribute it towards the Stop Hunger Now Event that will be happening on March 24 at Mount Hermon UMC.  Even as we see that we do not live on bread alone, we also have the opportunity to provide bread to those who lack it.

When we come to the waters, and we are baptized, we put on a new identity, and identity that we spend the rest of our lives living into as we walk into it with Jesus.   Jesus calls us into the wilderness because it is a place where we are transformed.[7]  It is a place where our identity becomes shaped more deeply to look more like Jesus.  It is a place where we find ourselves looking inside…turning around…to repent literally means to “turn around”…and walking with Jesus.  It is a time where we intentionally walk into the wilderness with Jesus. T

here are times in our lives we can name where we’ve been in the wilderness without asking for it, and those are often times of transformation as well.  But during Lent, as we choose to walk in the wilderness, what are the things we need to give up to become more human.  As we walk with Jesus in the wilderness, and dig a hole and bury our Alleluias there, we wait for those seeds to blossom at the resurrection.  As we live as a people who walk in the wilderness, all the time knowing, feeling that tension building up inside ourselves, that excitement about Easter, where are the places that Christ needs to make you more human during this Lenten season?


[1] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 46.

[2] Amy Laura Hall, “Eating Chocolate for Lent,” J. Kameron Carter’s Blog, Online: http://jkameroncarter.com/?p=1003, cited February 26, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gavin Rodgers, Forty Days of Haven, Online:  http://www.40daysofhaven.com, cited February 26, 2012.

[6] Hall, “Eating,” http://jkameroncarter.com/?p=1003.

[7] Adams, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 46.

Considering my username on here is “Shrove,” one might expect me to have something to say about today, Shrove Tuesday.  It is hard for me to put into words why I love Shrove Tuesday so much.  Part of it comes down to the fact that I have the culinary tastes of an eight year old, and pancakes are just one of my favorite foods. This can be reflected in the Thomistic treatise I created in college under the moniker “Pseudo-Thomas Aquinas” about pancakes:

On the Pancakes

Part I, Article One

Whether or not having pancakes for Shrove Tuesday is totally sweet.

Objection 1. It would seem that having pancakes for Shrove Tuesday is in fact not sweet. I for one do not enjoy pancakes; therefore, it is not a universal truth that having pancakes for any time is totally sweet.

Objection 2. Pancakes are not nearly as sweet as Mardi Gras (dude). I much prefer raucous drinking, sex, and the reversal of the roles of the rulers and the peasants. The exchange of nudity for beads far surpasses any love I have for pancakes.

On the Contrary: Pancakes for Shrove Tuesday are in fact sweet. In the first chapter of Genesis, God affirms that his creation is good. Therefore, as part of the creation pancakes are good.

I answer that as part of the created order, Pancakes are awesome on any occasion. Additionally, having pancakes, a food that is generally associated for breakfast, for dinner is even more fun than just having them for breakfast.

Reply Objection 1. Just because you do not enjoy pancakes does not deny the truth that God says that they are totally sweet since they are part of creation.

Reply Objection 2. You clearly have underestimated pancakes for dinner. Pancakes for dinner is truly rare, but it is quite easy to participate in any of those raucous activities any time during the year. Additionally, scripture would seem to affirm that eating yummy pancakes is more pious that raucous sex and drinking.

I love to bring this thing back every year.

However, I think what is at the heart of my affection for Shrove Tuesday is that I start getting journey-proud about Lent.  Lent is season of thirst, repentance, and introspection, so it might not seem like a journey anyone would like to make.  Yet, there is a focus and a depth in our lives during Lent that I find harder to grasp during the rest of the year.  The time in the wilderness must come first, and we must accompany Christ to the Cross.

Truly, there is no Easter without Good Friday.  And yet, knowing where we are headed, receiving that liturgical telos gives a shape to Lent that is gripping.  Shrove Tuesday finds us feasting together, ready to undertake the journey, hoping and praying that the Spirit won’t leave us the same during the journey, that somehow we’ll be different.  However, I don’t want to jump to far into the season before it begins.

There are pancakes to be eaten!

“Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”

“Seriously?”  Says Naaman.  “That’s what it’s gonna take?”

Naaman expects this to be a big deal; after all, Naaman is a big deal.  Naaman is a well-respected military commander in the army of the king of Aram.  Naaman is a celebrated hero, yet he is also a tragic figure, as he suffers from leprosy.  It’s important to point out here that any number of skin diseases at the time fell under the category of “leprosy,” and in many cases the ailment bore little resemblance what we now know as Hansen’s disease.  However, what remains clear is that Naaman has suffered deeply, so much so, that he is willing to travel to Israel, and to consult with a prophet who he only found out about because his wife’s Hebrew servant told him.[1]

Naaman expects more from a great prophet like Elisha.  He’s already been surprised to find that this powerful prophet isn’t squarely situated in the center of power near the king.  He thought for sure it would take a lot of money and gifts to incur the favor of this prophet.  So, Naaman expects a big production, in which the prophet comes out and waves his hands over the area calling upon [quote-unquote,] “his” God to effect this healing.  Instead, Naaman never lays eyes on Elisha.  Elisha sends a messenger with the simple instructions to go wash seven times in the Jordan.

Naaman is furious.  “This is all you want me to do?  Go wash in your muddy Israelite river?[2]  The rivers where I come from are better than your river!  I should have stayed at home.”  And then, his servants help him to put things into perspective.  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more when all he said to was, ’Wash, and be clean’?”  “Maybe just give it a shot?”

Naaman expects a grand ceremony, or at least some feats of strength to overcome his disease.  Except that his stature and his abilities are not what will heal him and cleanse him.  God will.  Elisha doesn’t need to come do a big production, waving his hands over the area because he’s not the one doing the healing.  In fact, Naaman doesn’t know it yet, but the narrator has told us that even Newman’s success hasn’t come from his own efforts, but because God gave victory to Aram.  It is all God.  Elisha doesn’t need to give Naaman a difficult journey of cleansing.  God will do the cleansing.  He just has to respond, to go to the waters and wash seven times, a number of completion, a number of perfection, and let God take care of the rest.

Water.  Simple water.  Today is Scout Sunday, and one of the things I reflected on as I read this passage is the way water can be your friend or enemy.  It can be the thing that gets through your hike when you’re thirsty, yet it can also be the thin that ruins your camping trip as it soaks your socks.  I recalled a time when I tried to dry my socks by the fire, and they caught on fire!  But water.  Naaman is aggravated because water is so mundane!  So normal!  This is going cure my leprosy?  And yet, God chooses to cleanse Naaman through the mundane waters of the Jordan.  And when we think of water, we are naturally drawn to think about baptism.  That God offers us grace through something as mundane and yet as vital as water!  Simple water.

What happens to Naaman is not baptism.  Yet, what we see in Naaman’s cleansing is a prefiguring of one of aspects of the waters of baptism:  washing and cleansing.  We tend to think only in terms of cleansing from sin, which seems somehow different than Naaman’s skin disease.  Yet, isn’t that what sin is?  A disease.  A disease that finds us as people who are sick not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and relationally.   Just like Naaman, it is not a disease that we can perform our way out of with great feats of righteousness.  Rather, it is a cleansing that is a gift to cure a disease that we can’t cure ourselves.  It is forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, with the only condition being that, with the help of grace, accept it.  It is learning, as we have seen over the past few weeks, how to perform into what Jesus did because we are in him and he is in us.

It is when we accept that forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, that we begin to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And yet we know that we will experience times of difficultly even after baptism.  Times when we stop listening.  Times when we might walk away.  Times when we turn our back on the love offered  to us by God.  Times we reject God’s invitation to be a part of God’s life.  Times when we as members of the church do not offer that same love and forgiveness to those in our midst.  Times, when lose sight of the effect that the grace offered to us in the waters of baptism has had on us, in drawing us into Christ’s body and to doing the things that Christ did as members of his body.

When that happens, and we find ourselves far away from God, far away from church family, that we begin to create great barriers for ourselves to return.  This is reasonable because when we begin to recognize God calling us back, we are aware of what we have forfeited.  And, like Naaman, we begin to expect that great feats will be necessary for us to be cleansed and return back to the community.

Yet, what is simply required is to dive back into the waters.  I don’t mean to be re-baptized.  What I mean is that after we are baptized, we spend our lives swimming in those waters, learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and we are helped to live in him and let him live in us through the grace regularly offered to us by God.  That includes even those times when we have walked away from God and the community.  It doesn’t mean coming back into the community will always be easy.  There are consequences for our actions, there are relationships that may have to be mended, but isn’t that what the community of the baptized is supposed to be?  The primary location of where such relationships with God and one another are healed.  It’s why we confess our sins and pass the peace before we share Holy Communion with one another.  Just as Naaman must dip into the river seven times, our lives as Christians is the story of us being shaped, formed, changed, healed, and brought back to Christ by the waters of our baptism.

The scene that keeps running through my head as I consider Naaman’s cleansing and our baptism comes from The Apostle starting Robert Duvall.[3]  Duvall’s character, “Sonny” Dewey is on the run.  He is a preacher who has had what many might consider a successful ministry at a Pentecostal Holiness Church in Texas.  However, things are now out of control.  His wife has decided to leave him for another man, a younger minister in the church.  In an angry drunken rage Sonny takes the life of this man at his kids’ little league game, where this other man is a coach.  Sonny flees town, eventually ending up in Louisiana.  He ditches his car in a lake, and begins walking, trying to figure out what to do next.  As he is walking along the river, he runs into an old man fishing, and he asks if he can hang around the man’s property.  Sonny begins to search his soul as begins to fast and lay in a small pup tent that the man lets him borrow.

As Sonny lies down in this tent, he reflects on his life, his ministry, his family, and his call.  When he emerges from this tent, we find Sonny in the river, praying:

With great humility, I ask permission to be accepted as an Apostle of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and with your gracious permission, I wish to be baptized as an Apostle of our Lord.  I therefore, without witnesses, baptize myself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and in the name of Jesus.[4]

I watched this movie for first time during seminary for a class, and this scene was a topic of great discussion.  It doesn’t take a seminary student to see that what Sonny does is rife with problems.  First and foremost is that Sonny re-baptizes himself. As I’ve already alluded to, while some traditions permit and may even call for re-baptism as a sign of commitment and membership, we as United Methodists believe that we only require one baptism.  We accept the baptism of other churches as valid as long as water is used and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is invoked because we understand Baptism as God’s act of claiming us even as we understand the need for a human response to the grace offered.   Even more peculiarly, Sonny baptizes himself.  Even Jesus had someone else baptize him!  Not to mention this baptism occurs outside of the context of a faith community.  Finally, what in the world does it mean for this new baptism to confer on Sonny the title of “Apostle”??

There are plenty of problems with what Sonny does, and yet, it is a profound moment of transformation for both Sonny and the viewer.  We don’t recognize it at first.  As the “Apostle, E.F.” as Sonny calls himself now, emerges from the waters, and he begins to do his “preacher thing” again.  We don’t trust him.  It seems he has used his religion to don an alias to hide his identity while he is on the run.  He is just a murderer who now sets about doing the only thing he knows how to do, creating a ministry, not out of sincere faith, but because he needs to create some income.   The Apostle, E.F., begins to establish this ministry, first on the radio station where he gets a job as a janitor, and then as he begins to gather a congregation around him and work to renovate an old church.  We want to view Sonny as a charlatan, a cheap huckster of a false gospel.  Seriously?  He baptized himself?  Who baptizes himself an apostle?

The only thing is, that as the movie proceeds, we find that, even with all the problems with what Sonny as done lives begin to change in his midst.  We begin to root for Sonny, even though, as viewers, we know for certain that he will eventually have to suffer the consequences of what he did.  What becomes clear is that Sonny’s transformation, while there may be some self-confirmation and self-deception in that self-baptism his action is actually a function of him knowing nothing else than the practices and beliefs of Christ’s Church.  In his own weird way, he knows he needs to repent, and he knows that baptism, repentance, and cleansing are related, and so he makes his way to the waters.

His new ministry, as much as at it may be an effort to start a life somewhere else after his crimes, comes because he knows nothing else than preaching the Gospel in such a way that people are compelled to have their lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It doesn’t excuse what Sonny did, and even Sonny knows this.  However, Sonny’s problematic baptism in that river turns out to be also a turning point in his life as a Christian.  It unfolds complete with the Biblical drama of receiving a new name.  His time in that pup tent turns out to be a tomb, and his emergence from it a time of resurrection culminating in his return to the waters.  Sonny, who has been preaching since he is 12 years old, is returning the beliefs and practices that have shaped him as a Christian.  In his problematic baptism, we find Sonny returning to the waters for another dip, in his own weird way.

The preacher and theologian in me doesn’t like what Sonny did.  It is, after all, my responsibility to teach rightly about our beliefs, especially with regard to the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Yet, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am compelled by Sonny’s character.  As a disciple I am reminded that the Spirit may work outside the normal channels.  I am compelled by Sonny’s character because Sonny isn’t all good, and Sonny isn’t all bad.  He isn’t all righteous, nor is he all evil.  He’s somewhere in the middle.  He is, I think, a lot like you and me.  Sonny recognizes this himself.  As he walks along after his re-baptism, he prays and talks with God:

“Thank ya Lord. I’m your Apostle from now to the end of eternity.  Ever since you rung my bell when I was 12 years you’ve been with ya.  Sometimes I zig-zagged off course, more zaggin’ than ziggin’, but I’m on’ tell ya I’m with ya now on a straight line forever!”[5]

More zaggin’ than ziggin’.  How many of us have done more zaggin’ than ziggin’? Sonny doesn’t need to re-baptize himsel, yet the transformation that comes from his odd activity looks and sounds someone who Jesus has got a hold of.  He still suffers the consequences of his actions at the end of the movie, yet we root for him, I think, because we want to believe that, like Sonny, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’, there is still redemption for him and for us.

Naaman expects a big production with a powerful healer-prophet, but what he finds is healing and cleansing from the mundane waters of the Jordan and God’s touch in the Jordan.  It is the same cleansing that beggar experiences from Jesus’ touch in our Gospel lesson.  It is the same cleansing that we experienced in our baptism, and that continues to happen in our lives and in our church as we come the table of Holy Communion over and over again.  We spill out into the world to invite others to the cleansing, not because we are so clean, but because we’re somewhere in the middle, and we know that we find cleansing at the waters of the font.   It is a cleansing that comes because God’s invitation to us never ceases.  It never expires.  It comes because God knows us each and everyone of us by name.

One of my favorite phrases in the Apostle comes as Sonny performs a healing:  “I always call you Jesus; you call me Sonny.  Now heal this broken heart!”[6]  That, I think, sums up what we as church experience, and are called to offer to others, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’.

“I always call you Jesus, you call me by my name.  Now heal this broken heart!”


[1] William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 339.

[2] Carl, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 341.

[3] The Apostle.  DVD. Directed by Robert Duvall. 1997; Universal City, CA: Universal Home Video, 2003.

[4] The Apostle.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

Exile can dim the memory.  It is difficult to remember our identity when exile happens.  There is pressure to assimilate into the foreign culture, both from persecution as well as simple peer pressure to fit in.  Further, exile seems to place us on the losing end of things.  When exile happens, those other gods and false idols start to seem appealing.[1]  The doubts begin to creep in.  “Maybe they are stronger than our God?  Maybe we were wrong?  If God loved us more, wouldn’t our God have prevented this from happening?”  It is hard for the Israelites, and us, to remember who we are in when we are in exile.

The Israelites suffered this failure of memory regularly during their exile.  And who can blame them?  Plucked up their home, disconnected from their land, their people, and many of the practices that made them who they were, it is no wonder that they struggled to remember.  Think of the words of the Psalmist: “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a strange land? (Psalm 137.4).”  In our Isaiah passage today, we hear the Israelites say, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God.”  It is hard to remember who we are in exile.

“Have you not known?” Isaiah interjects.  “Have you not heard?” Isaiah cries.  “Has it not been told you from the beginning?” Isaiah shouts.  “Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”  Isaiah exclaims.   Through Isaiah, God challenges them to remember.  Their God, isn’t just any god.  Their God isn’t just the kind of god who can be judged and evaluated based simply on whether things happen to be going well for them right now.  Their God is the God

who, sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

All of the rulers of the earth can be made as nothing because of the greatness of their God.  God is above these things.  God is in control.  Isaiah reminds the Israelites of the temporary nature of these rulers over and against God’s eternity:

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Isaiah brings back to their memory who their God is:

To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Their memory has failed.  Their resolve has begun to buckle.  But Isaiah will not let them forget.  These false gods, these new rulers who seem to have won the victory are incomparable to the God of Israel.  Who created even those who seem to be winning?  The God of their ancestors.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Remember who you are Isaiah says.  And the way to remember that is to remember who God is.

After he repeats the complaint of the Israelites, Isaiah keeps pushing.  God is the Creator, and there is no end to God.  They might lose faith, they might feel powerless, even the young may fall exhausted, but God is everlasting.  God’s understanding is unsearchable.  When we lose sight of this, when our memory fails, we lose resolve.  But the strength of the Israelites, and our own strength is renewed by waiting for the Lord.  God outlasts exile.  But God doesn’t outlast exile and suffering from some distant place.  God outlasts all because God is everlasting, but God extends the invitation to us to join him in God’s everlasting-ness (yes that’s a new word I invented).  When we are caught up in the stream of God’s everlasting-ness, we are mounted up with eagles’ wings.  We can run and not be weary.  We can walk and not faint.  The Israelites have lost their vision.  The Israelites have experienced amnesia about their God.  Because of this, they also begin to forget who they are.

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.  Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.  He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.  Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

 “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Has it not been told you from the beginning?  Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? … He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless…Have you not known?  Have you not heard? … Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  The same God about whom Isaiah cried out to the Israelites.  The God who is over all things.  The God who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The God who renews strength has renewed her strength.  God’s Word has assumed flesh and begun to walk among God’s people.  In doing this, Jesus Christ initiated the most decisive way for us to be caught up into God’s everlasting-ness.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?…The fever left her, and she began to serve them.”  Her experience of Christ, the renewal of strength she experiences immediately moves her to service.

“That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.”  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”  “And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”  Even the demons know who Jesus is because the God who “sits above the circle of the earth,” is the God who is even Lord over them. We hear the words of Isaiah echo: “Lift up your eyes on high and see:  who created these?”   Jesus is bringing to fruition the cries of Isaiah.  He does this, as we saw last week, first by assuming flesh and initiating our healing.  Then he begins to move from place to place raising up signs of this healing by performing healings on those who are afflicted, sick, and possessed.  And in the midst of this, the disciples and we, are being trained to do the same to bring healing to others.

The kind of healing we talked about last week finds us caught up in God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Through Jesus Christ we are invited into God’s life.  God’s life is everlasting.  Our healing finds us caught up in God’s everlasting-ness.  It is not a far off everlasting-ness, left to a distant heaven.  It is an everlasting-ness that begins now, as we are shaped, formed, nourished, and sent out into the world to reveal glimpses of God’s everlasting-ness to the world.  Eternal life begins now, and it is not something to be hoarded our boasted about.  It is something to be offered.  The very shape of eternal life, the everlasting-ness that God offers us, is that it grows when it is offered and shared.

When Jesus goes to the desert place to recover and pray, the disciples “hunt” him down.  They tell him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Everyone is searching for you.   Think about the depth of those words.  Everyone is searching for you.  I don’t want to read too much into these words, but the Wesleyan in me wants to her Prevenient Grace here.  I want to hear that God’s grace that comes before we have any idea is always wooing us into relationship or back into relationship with God.  I want to hear that when people begin to encounter the everlasting-ness of God in Jesus Christ, they want to come closer.  They want to respond to the grace.

As people encounter Jesus, they begin to crowd around him.  Though Jesus has moved away by himself to pray, when he hears “everyone is searching for you” he says, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’”  He doesn’t stay to revel in his new celebrity, he is spurred on to proclaim his message in a new place, to allow more people to encounter face-to-face God’s everlasting-ness, God’s life, and God’s love into which we are all invited.

Jesus moves about Galilee.  Emmanuel, God with us, goes about, and as he does those who encounter him encounter God’s everlasting-ness.  He moves about, giving power to the weakened and strength to the powerless.  He lives out what Isaiah was trying to so hard to bring to the memory of the Israelites, what they seemed to have forgotten in exile.  Here’s the thing.  In many ways, we could argue that we are experiencing our own exile.  If there was ever such a thing as America being a Christian nation, it’s not true any more.  And there are a couple of ways we can respond to this.  We can lament for days gone by.  We can try to grab hold of power politically.  Or we can recognize that exile may not be the worst thing.  While it can be scary, it is not the worst thing in the world for our faith to cost us something.

When there is little cost to our discipleship, there is little real commitment required.  The times when martyrdom was a reality were more convincing to the world of who Christ was than times when the governments have implicitly or explicitly claimed the Church as its own.  When the lines are blurred, whatever the state does may appear to be the same as the Church, which is a dangerous reality.  The power of the state will almost always coerce the Church.  The Church has always flourished in the times when it takes actual commitment to follow Christ.  It is that commitment, that often goes against the grain, which demonstrates to the world that we are shaped differently than the world around us.

Yet, as we saw from the Isaiah passage, exile can dim the memory.  How are we to remember?  We might find a new prophet among us saying the words regularly, “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  Have you forgotten who Jesus is and the things he did?  Have you forgotten that it is who graciously invites you into God’s everlasting-ness?  Have you forgotten hat you are trained to do this same, to proclaim the message with your life?”  How are we to remember?  This week, during our Holy Communion study the issue of memory arose in our conversation.  One of the most important facets of Holy Communion is memory.  Yet, often we short-change what it means to remember in the Lord’s Supper.

When we think of memory, we tend to think only of looking back to a different time.  We can turn Holy Communion into a memorial service for something that happened 2,000 ago.  We may look upon it with gratitude.  We may bring it into our mind.  But it mainly affects us by Christ’s example, by looking back on this particular act.  When we only look back on it as an action in the past, we don’t remember that this table also involves God’s action NOW in the church community!

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

The word that we translate remember is the Greek word anamnesis.  To remember in the way this word suggests means more than just looking back.  The conception of remembering inherent in this Greek word is that the past event is brought into the present.  To remember at this table means not just that we look back.  Rather, it means that the Lord’s Supper is made present among us.  Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is present at the table when we share the bread and the cup together at the table.  God’s grace that forgives our sins is in this sacrament because Christ who forgives our sins is present.  God’s grace that makes us one in the one body of Christ is present in this sacrament because his body and blood are present through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What all this means is that when we come to this table, we not only remember what happened in the past, but we, ourselves, are re-membered.  As a friend of mine, Andrew Thompson pointed out in a United Methodist Reporter article, to re-member something is “to put something back together that has been taken apart.  We “literally…‘re-member’ that thing, so that the various “members” that made up the “whole” are put back into a unity.”[2]  This is Holy Communion.

“Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

Coming together at the Lord’s table is the ultimate antidote for our amnesia.  When we come together to receive Holy Communion we are reminded of who we are because we are literally “re-membered” by Jesus.  Jesus puts us back together.  When we begin to forget who we are, we meet Christ, God’s everlasting-ness, face to face at the table.  We experience God’s everlasting-ness with taste and touch.  This reminder is more than just a pointing to an act 2,000 years ago.  It is an invitation into God’s everlasting-ness.  It is an invitation into God’s life.  It is an invitation to have our identity re-shaped as we share Christ’s body and blood.

It is the ultimate encounter with the one who brings healing to us by sharing our flesh because through the power of the Holy Spirit we receive the flesh that heals us.  When we encounter this reality, like Simon’s mother we begin to serve.  When we encounter this reality, like the disciples we begin to move with Jesus, proclaiming his message.  We remember because Christ re-members us to serve and proclaim his message in the world in which, whether they know it or not, “Everyone is searching for him.”


[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 315.

[2] Andrew Thompson, “Rethinking the Church Involves Remembering,” http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=7183, cited Oct. 1, 2010.

Last week I told the story of my calling to Lane Memorial UMC, and the ways in which I believe God led me here to be among you.  As I reflected on that story this week while I read the scripture from Deuteronomy, I thought about what things must have been like on this end of the congregation.   At Horeb, the people had requested a mediator because they felt that if they stood in God’s presence, they would die.  What would happen when this mediator God had chosen in Moses was gone?  Who would stand in between them and God to deliver God’s message?  Further, an important thing to note in the background is that as these stories were likely being written down in the sixth century is not that God is right there trying to speak to them, but because they are in exile, they are wondering where God has gone?[1]

Moses assures them that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut. 18.15).  Moses’ words offer assurance both to those addressees when Moses said them as well as to those who would be writing them down because they could trust that God had sent them prophets to reliably deliver God’s messages to them in both circumstances.

It is a scary thought to think about losing a leader.  I can imagine the anxiety that must have existed here at Lane in the months after Rick announced that he would be retiring?  Who will the next pastor be?  What will he or she be like?  Can he or she ever do as good of a job as Rick has done?  Perhaps, you may have even thought, “We just got finished breaking in Rick, and now we’ll have to start over again!”[2]  If that anxiety existed here, imagine how those Israelites felt.

This is Moses we’re talking about!  Moses was the kind of leader to which no one could compare.  At the end of Deuteronomy, we hear “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut. 34.10).”  Yet, Moses assures them that God has it covered.  In our United Methodist Church, where our pastors itinerate, we probably get that kind of “leadership anxiety” more often than other churches.  Moving around our pastors has its benefits as well as its problems, but it is part of how we understand ourselves as a connectional church.  It leads us regularly asking the question, “What will our next leader be like?”

Moses’ response to the anxiety of the Israelites is telling.   God assures the Israelites that these prophets will be raised up “from among your own people” (Deut. 18.15).  This, I think, should be a word of comfort to us when we begin to have “leadership anxiety.”  While the pastor plays an important role in the leadership of a church, God promises that there will be those from among the people whom God will raise up.  Just as God was preparing the way for me to be here, God was preparing to raise up leaders from among this congregation.  Pastors who share leadership and lay people who are invested and equipped leaders are  a sign of healthy congregations.

Pastors who try to put on a super-hero cap and want to take on everything themselves are robbing their members of opportunities to share leadership.  Opportunities to hear God’s voice, like Samuel a couple of weeks ago.  Conversely, many congregations are famous for doing what I like to call “outsourcing our baptismal vows.”  Congregations who expect their pastor or other staff members to do all of the ministry are attempting to outsource the vows that we repeat every time we baptize a person about creating a community of love and forgiveness.  Except we all make that promise.

God intends for us to serve together, drawing together ordained leaders with those leaders from the priesthood of all believers who God raises up.  In these weeks following Epiphany, we have seen a consistent stream of stories about calling.  We hear about Samuel.  We hear about Jonah.  We hear about the call of the disciples.  Last week, I talked a little about my calling last week, but this week we find ourselves encountered by the call before each of us.  This call that God would raise up people from among us.

The “leadership anxiety” that we experience in churches when there are pastoral changes also regularly ripple throughout the life of The United Methodist and many other churches.  As we watch decline in our denomination, we begin to wonder, from where will the next generation of leaders come?  Moses answers us.  “From among your own people!”  However, we have a role to play in this.  It is the role of the Elis and Samuels we heard about two weeks ago.  When we begin to live into that role among ourselves, leadership begins to bubble up as we begin to hear the different callings people have on their lives.  Yet, the question may arise…”Moses here is talking about a prophet.  This is a particular office, isn’t it?  Surely we’re not all called to be prophets like Samuel? Or like Isaiah?  Are there really prophets any more?”

To answer this, we turn to the Gospel lesson.  During the past two weeks, each of the Gospel lessons has featured Jesus calling the disciples.  Yet, our Gospel lesson today features something different.  It shifts away from directly talking about the call of Jesus to begin speaking about his miracles.  Why does this happen?  We said that none of us will stack up to Moses.  That is, no one except Jesus.

In the Deuteronomy text, the Israelites say they don’t want to stand in God’s presence because it is too terrifying and they fear that they will die.  Yet, in Jesus Christ, God’s presence comes to us because God’s Word has taken on flesh and dwells among us.  A prophet no longer mediates the Word in the same way.  The Word is a prophet, the prophet, and yet he is more.  The Word, the message once in need of mediation, has now lived among us.  We now expect to encounter God directly.

Not only do we expect to encounter God directly, but also we find the expectation on us that we will be like Jesus.  Jesus makes it clear that those who believe in him will do the works he does, and they will actually do greater works (John 14.12)!  When the disciples follow Jesus, their role is not simply to be amazed by what Jesus does.  They are being trained “on the job” to do what Jesus does.  This means that while Jesus is the pre-eminent prophet, we, the members of his body should expect to be prophetic in our lives speaking out against injustice, idolatry, and brokenness.  Further, this means that in our Gospel lesson today, when we see Jesus heal the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit, they are, we are watching an act in which they, and we, are supposed to participate![3]  We are expected to be healers.

This begs the obvious question.  What does it look like for us to go about healing?  I imagine, if you’re like me, that you’re skeptical of this.  We conjure up images of televangelists in fine suits with Rolexes places their hands on someone, crying for the demon to “come out!” as the person falls to the ground.  Yet, as uncomfortable as we are with the image, Mark is not so uncomfortable.  First of all, what is amazing to Mark, is not simply that Jesus casts out the demon.  There were plenty of people walking around claiming to do this all the time in Jesus’ day.  What is amazing, as one commentator points out, was “the authority with which he did so. He did not call upon any other authority in the spirit world to act. Jesus spoke the word, ‘Shut up, and come out of him!’”[4]  Jesus doesn’t need any help.  He relies on his own authority.

Second, it is clear that Mark isn’t as uncomfortable as we are because Mark, as another commentator points out, “more than another Gospel writer, emphasizes Jesus’ miraculous power to heal and to exorcise.  Of the eighteen miracles recorded in Mark, thirteen have to do with healing, and four of the thirteen are exorcisms.”[5]  Mark isn’t scared of this.  What are we to make of this?  Does it mean that if we aren’t healed we don’t have enough faith?  How are we to think about this, especially if we are called to have some role in repeating it as disciples of Jesus?

I think part of the answer is that our vision of “healing” is too narrow.[6]  It is formed by the faith-healer charlatans, and it is characterized based on what our understanding of health is.  But health is wider, salvation means healing!  In reality, Jesus didn’t only heal people because he was moved by their illness and suffering; rather, the healings that Jesus performed were symptomatic of a deeper healing.[7]  Jesus’ life itself is a story of healing because the healing of all humanity was enacted by the fact that God became human.[8]

It is not as if God is somehow hiding in the man Jesus, and revealing God’s self on occasion to perform healings. Jesus’ life is healing. Our healing actually comes from Jesus’ humanity.  Jesus is one who is saving his own people![9]  The healings like the ones we see in the Gospels happen because who Jesus is as both God and human is already effecting our healing.[10] Healing can only happen because the divinity and the humanity are both there.  Our sickness is healed because Jesus shares our flesh.   God becoming human was necessary because of the fact that all of us suffer from such a deep sickness that we fail even to recognize how diseased we are, and even if we do, the sickness has such a hold on us that we can’t get free of it on our own.[11]  To be healed doesn’t mean that we won’t die.  To be healed means that we are part of the one who brings resurrection.

Does this mean we shouldn’t pray for healing from illnesses?  Absolutely not.  We should continue to pray for healing.  But we shouldn’t understand healing in such a limited way.  Our faith shouldn’t be broken when people still die.  Rather, what we see in Jesus’ life, is that each and every one of us is in need of healing.   So, as the disciples watched our lesson for today unfold, they were witnessing a sign of a healing they were also undergoing.  The works the disciples did came only as a result of the healing that Jesus effected in them.  We, who are called to do what Jesus did, can only be healers in the world because we know what it’s like to be healed.  We can only bring God’s healing to other because we ourselves have been and are still being healed.

How does this connect back with the Deuteronomy lesson?  God promises to raise up leadership from among us.  Rather than being people who are called to break in and take control, leaders in the church are shaped by their “followership.”[12]  Those who God raises up are recipients of healing, and they are called to lead others into healing.  Further, each and every one of us, no matter the role we are to play in the life of the church are being healed, and we are called to be healers.  Jesus chose to take on our flesh, and by doing so, he already began to heal us.  We bring healing to others as Jesus’ disciples because we have experienced Jesus’ healing presence in our lives.  Yet, we recognize that there are many things that are not healed in us yet.

And this morning, as we have thought about our call, as we have thought about God’s provision of leaders, and as we have thought about healing, I’m asking:  Where do need healing?  Where do you need healing, so that you can bring healing to others?  I’m not putting any kind of parameters on this question.  I don’t need to because even now, many of you are bringing to mind what needs healing.  What healing needs to happen in your life, so that you can bring healing to others?  What healing needs to happen, so that you can bring healing to others?  In just a few minutes, we will have the opportunity to undergo the historic church practice of anointing.  Since the beginning, the church has brought anointing and laying on of hands to pray for healing.  Today we will share in that practice, praying for healing, so that we might live God’ call on our lives and bringing God’s healing to others.  Where do you need healing, so that you can bring healing to others?


[1] Richard A. Puckett, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 293.

[2] William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 291.

[3] “OT/Gospel Stream: This Call’s for You, 1 — Prophets and Deliverers,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:  http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3879973/k.9C35/Lectionary_Planning_Helps_for_Sundays.htm, cited January 29, 2012.

[5] P.C. Enniss, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting, p. 310.

[6] My understanding of healing from this perspective was, and continues to be, formed and shaped by J. Kameron Carter’s Christology class he taught during the Spring Semester of 2008 while I was working on my Master of Theology degree at Duke University Divinity School.  This explains why my footnotes for this section of the sermon are so detailed!

[7] “We do not really grasp Jesus’ cures, which include the healing of those considered possessed, if we understand them solely as miracles performed for individuals out of sympathy for their illness.  Since the eschatological horizon of Jesus’ activity has reentered consciousness, it has been clear that Jesus’ miracles of healing must be seen in connection with his preaching of the kingdom of God.” Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community, trans. by John P. Galvin, (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1982), p. 12.

[8] “It is as one who is God that he took flesh and it is as one who was in flesh that he divinized the flesh.”  St. Athanasius, Orations against the Arians in The Christological Controversy, trans. and edited by Richard A. Norris, Jr., (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1980), p. 97.

[9] “In this way he saved his own people, not as a man conjoined to God, but as God who has come in the likeness of those who were in danger, so that in him first of all the human race might be refashioned to what it was in the beginning.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, On The Unity of Christ, trans. by John Anthony McGuckin, (Crestwood, New York:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 88.

[10] “The question ‘Who?’ is simply the religious question.  It is the question about the other person and his claim, about the other being, about the other authority. It is the question of love for one’s neighbour.  Questions of transcendence and of existence become questions concerning the person.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center, trans. by Edwin H. Robertson, (New York, NY:  Harper-Collins, 1978), p. 31.

[11] “A person who has of his own accord bound himself to a debt which he cannot repay, has thrown himself into this state of incapacity by his guilt.  As a result, he is unable to repay what he owed before his sin, that is, an obligation not to sin, and the fact that he is in debt as a consequence of his sin is inexcusable.” St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, translated by Brian Davies and G.R. Evans, (London:  Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 310.

[12] Kenneth L. Carder and Layece C. Warner, Grace to Lead:  Practicing Leadership in the Wesleyan Tradition,  (Nashville:  United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2010), p. 10.

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