Get Behind Me — A Different Kind of Roller Coaster

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Mark 8:22-38  |  Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Get Behind Me: A Different Kind of Roller Coaster

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus, and that’s when things go sideways for Peter.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter says. It’s the right answer, but in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rewards Peter with a stern warning not to tell anyone. (Over in Matthew’s telling of the same event, Peter gets a blessing—Matthew 16:17-19—an interesting addition to Mark’s account.)

Then Jesus begins explaining about getting himself killed, and Peter tries to talk some sense to him. It doesn’t go well. Jesus rejects him and calls him Satan for his trouble.

This is when the disciples realize they are on a different sort of ride.IMG_2044

Stunned by seeing Peter rebuked, now they hear Jesus describe the inverted value system of the Kingdom of God—denying oneself as gain, pursuit of wealth as spiritual poverty. To be human is to resist the divine. Then Jesus calls a crowd to him and starts talking about carrying one’s own cross. These are people who have first hand experience with Romans and crucifixion. The speech is less than inspiring.

Maybe his words ring true for them. Jesus isn’t giving them the happily ever after version. He’s telling them the hard truths: we sometimes live difficult lives and carry heavy burdens. The Gospel he is preaching is no easy path, no promise of prosperity. He doesn’t even ask them whether there is a cross lying within reach. He assumes they each have one and know where to find it. Take up your cross, he tells them, and none of them ask where it is.

Mark, ever mindful of the order of his story, puts this passage just after one of the oddest miracles in all of the Gospels, the miracle of the second touch. A blind man is brought to be healed, and Jesus touches his eyes and asks what he sees. People, says the man, but they are misshapen, like trees. It sounds as though Jesus does not get it right the first time and has to touch the man again, adjust the miracle, tweak it a bit. If we think the story is about Jesus performing miracles, it can make us uneasy.

It is a story about taking a second look, about trying to see clearly or at least about having the sense to know when we do not. Taken that way, it is the perfect introduction to what happens next.

Peter and the other disciples had a pretty good picture of how this messiah thing was supposed to work. So did most of the religious folk around them. It was just that their systematic theologies didn’t match up with God’s idea of messiah.

They had to stop and take a second look.

Religious people can be some of the most stubborn, closed-minded, arrogant, opinionated people on earth. Being one myself, I know something about them.

IMG_2464We have developed minutely differentiated beliefs, refining them to the point that we label and condemn one another by our theological and ideological differences. (“Your thoughts about God are not as pure, or right, as my thoughts about God. In fact, you may be a heretic…”)

We do not see clearly. Some of our theology no doubt looks as odd to God as a tree walking.

We would all do better to take a second look, or a third. God may still have some very different ideas about this messiah business.



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Recognizing a Voice

Fourth Sunday of Easter  |  John 10:1-10

Sheep are usually trusting creatures.

Goats 2 017Sheep, goats, cattle, all of them recognize the people who care for them, and they recognize the ones who do not. They know the voice that they trust. Animals may have a deeper wisdom than we, an older wisdom.

My dog is wiser than I. He sleeps more often than I, and better. He enjoys his food and the sunlight and the joy of a friendly touch much more than I. And he knows my voice, though he sometimes chooses not to listen to it.

Jesus says that he is a shepherd, that his own will know his voice. He also says that he is the gate for the sheep, mixing the elements of the analogy.

Word pictures for God—John’s gospel gives us plenty of these. At different points, Jesus is described (or is portrayed describing himself) as light, bread, water, a man, the way, the gate, the shepherd, a vine, a servant, a fisherman, a king, other things. All of these images are true, of course. None of them is complete. If we take any one of these images, however beautiful and true it may be, and hold it to the exclusion of the others, we do not take away a true understanding of Jesus. The same is true of the other people in our lives. They are more, and sometimes less, than the way we think of them.

Take another example, the explanation of the crucifixion. In the gospels we hear what Jesus did, what was done to him, told in story form. Elsewhere in scripture, there are references, surprisingly brief descriptions of the crucifixion, comparing it variously to a sacrifice, or a ransom, or to a judicial penalty, among other things. Outside of scripture on the other hand, entire books have been written to explain what happened on the cross (often minimizing everything else), and Christianity has divided itself into camps based at least in part on one or another of these explanations, as though the others are untrue.

It is like trying to understand a home only by what we see on the outside, or the life of the deepest ocean by watching from the shore. Much may be learned that is true, as far as it goes, but we know that the rest remains a mystery.

It must be the same for sheep and goats. Their shepherds guide them, feed them, keep them safe, and so the animals know much about their shepherd. They know when the shepherd comes, what the shepherd does, and they know the shepherd’s voice. The rest remains unknown to them, but the sheep do not seem to dwell on it or let it displace their faith. They respect the boundaries of mystery.

If a sheep were to sit and to write a detailed explanation of the other aspects of the shepherd’s life, explaining the motives and reasons that the shepherd does what a shepherd does, it would make interesting reading. Other sheep may find themselves agreeing or disagreeing. Focusing on the explanations might even be enough to distract a sheep so that it does not hear the shepherd’s voice.

That is a problem with being immersed in religion. We become so distracted, and content, explaining God that we do not even perceive God’s presence. We exchange our faith in God for a collection of ideas about God. Christianity does not promise that we are saved by means of our understanding. The promise is that we are saved through the love of God, saved by means deeper and more mysterious than we can comprehend, and saved from and to something perhaps more profound than we know.

Jesus went to the crucifixion like a sheep to slaughter. As we have said, animals have a deeper wisdom than we. Even though the sheep’s trust may be misplaced, it remains more noble and more whole for trusting than does the person who betrays it. There is a mysterious power in trust and in submission, even when proven wrong, and how much more power when the trust is fulfilled.

Perhaps this Easter season is a good time to remember one of the oldest confessions of faith in Christianity. The Nicene Creed, named for the place where early church leaders met in the fourth century, doesn’t explain much. It does assert a great deal, but by way of sharing the story and preserving the mystery. We learn as much from the way it is told as from what it contains.

The Nicene Creed ª
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

ª This translation is from The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. You can find the online version here:


Liturgy of the Palms  |  Matthew 21:1-11

Expectations. We all have them.

There was an entire crowd watching this man Jesus riding into Jerusalem. They came together just to see him, to line the road with soft tree branches and even with their own clothing. He was a rock star.

Another crowd was watching from inside the city, and they asked who this man was. It was a good question, seeing all the fuss.

This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.

That is the answer the crowd by the road gave, according to Matthew’s gospel. (They didn’t actually have rock stars in the first century.) What they thought about him was less clear, perhaps even to them. They had expectations, though, that much is certain.

We have expectations of God—what God wants, what God is like, what God is doing, often of what God is going to do for us. When God doesn’t meet our expectations, we either blame ourselves as being unworthy or we blame God: guilt or disappointment. We seldom examine our actual expectations.

I might expect my dog to fetch my newspaper. Other people Dogs are Rock Starshave told me that dogs do that sort of thing. I’ve seen it happen in movies. In actuality, my Westie will jump onto the back of a chair by the window and watch me fetch the paper, or anything else that needs to be brought inside. He will, on occasion, fetch something from inside the house and take it outside, such as one of my shoes.

The problem is my expectations. No one, meaning me, ever taught my dog to fetch the newspaper. In fact, I don’t even have a subscription to a newspaper. And if my dog ever went out unsupervised, I suspect that he would just keep going and send me a postcard from Hawaii. Imagining that my dog will fetch the paper is borderline mental deficiency.

We expect things of God. We might deny it, but on some level we expect God to look like the paintings, all robes and a white beard. In reality, God might look like some codger eating shrimp on a porch in Louisiana, or like a little girl with a shimmering rainbow balloon. God might decide to look like my dog, or like something we would not even recognize.

I imagine the last possibility is the most likely. God looks like something we would not recognize, perhaps do not recognize right now, right in front of us. God does things that we do not expect, in ways that do not meet our expectations.

The crowd thought that Jesus was a prophet, coming with the power of God to deliver them out of their problems. If we’ve got it right, Jesus actually was the power of God, and he did come with deliverance, just not the kind that anyone there had in mind. Maybe he wasn’t even bringing the kind that we have in mind.

When we explore the whole faith thing, we expect our lives to change, our problems to be solved, and our lives to become radically transformed, like in a movie. It doesn’t quite turn out that way, not for most of us, not most of the time.

We need to examine our expectations. Or, better, we need to get rid of our expectations altogether.

Don’t expect things about God, how God will look, what God will do, how God will react. That is mere religion, or superstition, or self delusion.

Faith just expects God.

The Christmas Thief

First Sunday of Advent  |  Matthew 24:36-44

Advent this year marks not only the beginning of the liturgical calendar but also the beginning of year A in the Revised Standard Lectionary. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is Matthew 24:36-44.

Flying.JPGThe passage is full of familiar images, most of all the image of a thief coming in the night. We do not know when the Lord will come, we are told, and so we are urged to remain awake and vigilant.

There is something extremely odd about the point of view here. Jesus, the Messiah, is telling the listener about expecting the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. We understand, with two thousand years of hindsight, that he was talking about a second coming, a return, a moment in which God would not only be made manifest within history, as with the first incarnation, but would break into and change history. At least that is more or less the mainstream view of this passage and of others similar to it. There are other views within Christianity, including the idea that God is already present, that the second coming followed directly on the first: the Spirit came like a thief, unexpected, unlooked for.

We might consider some other ideas that flow from the passage.

Generally, the second coming of the Messiah is described by much of evangelical Christianity as an event that the whole world will experience all at once. The clouds will part, and Christ will return. In the meanwhile, let’s consider another more immediate way of thinking about it—that the second coming could be experienced as a very personal event, internal, spiritual. We understand that we do not know at what hour Jesus will return for all of us. Could it be that Jesus is also saying that we do not know at what hour God will come to each of us?

Think about the possibilities.

Instead of looking for an experience of clouds, trumpets and angels, suppose we begin to expect some spiritual event, unforeseen in its shape and scope, some moment of sudden personal contact with God. Suppose we expect it each day and each night, every day and every night, over and over. Might not such an expectation move us from being one spectator among millions one day to being a soul participating each day with God in a sudden God-moment? Might not that be life changing?

Consider the very intentional image of God coming as a thief. We take from it the idea of God appearing at an unforeseen moment. What if there is another reason that Jesus chose to use the image of the thief? Yes, a thief is unexpected, or even if expected, still surprising in the chosen moment. There is something else that a thief does, something that is more intrinsic to the reality of a thief: a thief takes something. A thief is not a thief without a theft.

What does God want?

We might say worship, but in the end that answer trivializes God into a child-like being who simply wants our attention. Besides, true adoration cannot be taken, but only given. We might say love, but God is already love, if John understood anything at all. What then might God want from us?

What do we want from our children? Love? Obedience? Those are good things, but if we love our children as God loves us, then what we want is to see them grow, to see them achieve, to see them become the people we know they can be. We want to steal away anything that would hold them back.

So what would God steal?

One answer may be that God comes to take away the things that make us stumble, the things that limit our humanity: our fears, our regrets, our failures. There are some who call such things sin. It makes no difference to the thief what they are called. This thief comes to take away some of the things we hold most dear: our small ideas, our limited apprehension, our uncommitted embrace of life and of God.

Perhaps God wants to finish what God started, to steal a moment with a child who has finally grown up. God, our Christmas Thief, wants to take away the last impediments to our amazing life.

The best part? We don’t know when it will happen. So stay awake. Pay attention. Expect God to show up any time.