Monday, January 30, 2012


Mark 1: 21-28
January 29, 2012
J.W. McNeill

This Passage centers on authority.
Contrast authority of a teacher with the authority of a police officer. I understand there is some overlap, but consider a couple of different kinds of cases.
·         Teaching to read or play tennis – trust what I am telling you, learning to follow directions.
o   It is for the student’s good
o   Student chooses whether or not to grant authority
·         Police officer in the midst of a traffic stop – a certain kind of trust, but also following directions because of the fear of consequences.
o   Not for the arrestee’s good – for social good
o   No choice about granting the authority – police officer takes it.
·         In our story today, Jesus shows both kinds of authority.

1.      First, we see Jesus teaching with authority.
a.       Rational and relational: head component and a heart component
b.      Information and encouragement: content and blessing
                                                  i.      God came alive out of the book
c.       Inspiring trust and confidence – drawing them into his authority

2.      On the other hand, we see Jesus cast out the unclean spirit with authority.
a.       Jesus is coercive here, not persuasive.
b.      Teaching is not enough for unclean spirits.
c.       They are not teachable.
                                                  i.      And actually, they know the truth about Jesus. The unclean Spirit knows that Jesus is the Holy One of God.
                                                ii.      But the spirit resists or refuses to consent to live within the truth.
                                              iii.      Jesus forces it to obey, ignoring the question of consent.
3.      The people in the synagogue are amazed at his authority.
a.       They have seen that he has the authority of a teacher that inspires trust and loyalty.
b.      He also has the authority to take charge of spirits and make them obey.
4.      Let's also notice for a moment that this spirit -- whatever it is -- is able to recognize Jesus for who Jesus is:  the Holy One of God.  Somehow the unclean spirit knows who Jesus is before anyone else in the Gospel has figured it out.  Yet Jesus tells the spirit to be quiet and to come out of the man.  Jesus has power over this spirit.
You might be wondering why Jesus tells the spirit to be quiet.

Why does Jesus silence the spirit? Jesus is not ready to be revealed as the Holy One just yet. Jesus is not to be fully revealed outside of the context of his crucifixion and resurrection – but that’s a longer story for another time.

5.      Now with all that as background, I would like to bring us back to the immediacy or our own situations. What has authority over us?

a.       Last week Pastor Margaret preached about the passage immediately preceding this one. She told us that we are being called to follow Jesus and live out the kingdom of God. That kingdom of God language means that we are being called to enter into a different culture. A culture with understandings and assumptions that compassion, cooperation, reconciliation, forgiveness and grace are to be the dominant, operative motivations, for these are the dominant themes of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming culture of God.
b.      That means that we are called to rely on the authority of this Jesus to live according to the way of the God culture that is supposed to be coming into being among his followers.
c.       We are called to be ruled by Jesus’ authority as we go about our lives in our homes, in our school and workplaces, in our neighborhoods, at church, everywhere.
d.      So the question is, is Jesus my authority so that I can be living in such a way that reveals Jesus as my authority?

6.      Now the people in the synagogue that day were impressed with Jesus. They said that he taught and acted with authority.  But the Bible doesn’t tell us that they went ahead and followed. Yes, here is an authority, but will I make that one my authority? Or will I be continually handed over to some other authority? Well, I’m not ready to do that quite yet thank you, very much.

7.      The people in the synagogue may well have been impressed. They may well have recognized Jesus as teaching with authority, but they did not take him as their authority. And what about us?

a.       To whom or what have we given authority over us? Who or what is directing our priorities and our attitudes?
b.      How can we tell? Can we be sure that we are being honest with ourselves about that?
c.       Pastor Margaret suggested some ways last week:
                                                  i.      Calendar
                                                ii.      How we use our money beyond necessities
                                              iii.      Where are our priority commitments?
1.      Entertainment
2.      Sports
3.      What are we passionate about?
4.      What won’t we miss? Church? An opportunity for ministry?
5.      Are we more willing to miss church or our favorite television show?
                                              iv.      What about our attitudes?
1.      Are we cultivating generosity?
2.      Are we seeking reconciliation?
3.      Are we seeking to be free of resentments?
4.      Are we spending time seeking to connect with God and people who will help us connect with God?
                                                v.      These are all ways in which we might honestly question ourselves about whether we are taking Jesus as the authority for our lives.

8.      Or is something else going on in our lives? Are we being dominated by other spirits, perhaps without being clearly aware of it. Are we being driven by other spirits that have taken hold of us? What might they be?
a.       Fears and anxieties
b.      Rivalries
c.       Jealousy
d.      Ambition
e.       Desires for pleasure

9.      Or perhaps we are keeping ourselves back not willing to fully commit our lives, to fully follow any one or any path. We tell ourselves we’ll make a commitment later. Perhaps that was the attitude in the synagogue of those who were astonished by what a good preacher and exorcist had come to church that morning. This one deserves another look. Some day. We’ll see how it turns out. Maybe we’ll do all right in the culture of the scribes or the culture of Rome after all.

But come back to the distinction I made at the beginning between Jesus’ authority as a teacher and Jesus’ authority as one who cast out the unclean spirit. As we try to understand under what authority we live we need to understand that Jesus is inviting us into the culture of God that is set up for relationship and invites us with mind and heart, invites us with encouragement and inspiration. It is about entering into the freedom to be our best and truest selves. The people we were created to be in joy and peace.

But is that just so we are happy and content? So that we can be free from guilt or fear?  No.

What happens as we do that? We create and become that authority. We and others begin to trust it.

The teachers with whom Jesus is contrasted were the scribes.  The scribes were the professional readers, copiers, and interpreters of the Scripture.  Their role was to teach and preserve the written word of God.  People of faith then in Jesus' day as well as now need help in understanding the Bible and how to apply it to their lives.

This passage tells us of a time that Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.  He astounded everyone there because he taught with authority.  That is not more fully described.  Was it his tone of voice?  Was it the content of what he said?  Was there something about his gestures?  Was there a special sincerity in his eyes?  We are not told.

Let’s come back at this from a slightly different angle:

If they were astounded at Jesus' teaching, here the onlookers in the synagogue are amazed by the exorcism.  This combination of spiritual power and teaching is something marvelous.  What stands out is AUTHORITY.  It is what distinguishes Jesus from the scribes.

What is this about?

Here we must contrast the Word of God written with the Word of God living.
The Word of God written is a book.  It is a book that allows us to tell and to hear a grand tale.  It is a book that is a source of inspiration and insight into the ways of God.  It is a book that invites us to learn of our heritage as spiritual descendants in a great line of persons who have been called into fellowship with the God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ.  The Word of God written is a source and basis for us as a Church to understand our mission and ministry.

But I want to tell you something that will surprise you and may even offend some of you:  The Bible has no authority in itself.  Hear me carefully here.  It cannot be an authority because it cannot act, it cannot make a judgment, it cannot apply itself.

The Bible only has authority as it is interpreted and lived out in the community of faith.  Its authority is only the authority of the community that is molded by it. And the authority of that community is only the power of God that is unleashed within that community and from that community into the world.

The critical question that faces us as the people of God is not whether or not the Bible is true, but whether we will live out its truth as we struggle together to understand its message to us and to the world and live that message out.  Will we become the living word of God?

As we give ourselves over to the power of God,  we will see in ourselves and one another the authority of Jesus Christ because we will see our lives transformed together and we will see the transforming power of God set free into the world.

We are the ones as the Church of Jesus Christ who take on authority in this world to apply in our life situations the power and love of God as is revealed to us in Scripture. To become the word of God living.

The difference between Jesus and the scribes in that synagogue 20 centuries ago was that Jesus embodied the power of God, while the scribes had simply a head-knowledge of a holy book.  The people who looked on there in that place knew the difference and they were astonished!

Will we simply look on?  Or will we follow the one who calls and live out the power and authority of the God of love in the world?

We are called to become the living word of God by the power and authority of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Call, challenge, commission

(Today we used Psalm 62, Nan Merrills version, with a reflection on my silence experience in airport meditation room--see Facebook entry from early January)


Around church you’ll see all these orange flyers from last week’s SS classes: Jesus is the good news. Well, we could surely use some good news. But in today’s text Jesus isn’t the good news. It’s quite clear-- Jesus PROCLAIMS the good news, which is not a private, individual message saying believe in me and you’ll get into heaven.

The good news is that ‘the kingdom of God is drawing near, coming close’—the good news was a public, political message for an impoverished and oppressed people….a people who knew they needed God to break into their culture and free them.

Now this kingdom of God, or even kin-dom of God, would be a phrase they’d understand. They knew things weren’t right. They wanted God to come and replace the kingdom of Caesar with a new social order, but they imagined it would be simply with a replacement king of their own.

We too know things aren’t right; all around us are the signs that Empire forces, not God forces, are in charge. For us, kingdom language doesn’t really work, so try this. The good news Jesus brings is that the culture of God is coming close, a new social order is possible, but it requires a cultural change.

God’s culture is very different from ours, but unlike the people in Jesus’ day, we quite like ours, we’re quite comfy thanks. So if you’re quite satisfied with things as they are, and don’t really want to hear any more, you can stop listening now. I just ask that you don’t do anything that will prevent someone else from hearing God’s good news.

Moments like that experience in Newark airport, the culture of God is this close….

days when our youth are offering a free lunch in a downtown park, the culture of God is this close….

times when a child in SS ‘gets it’, the culture of God is this close….

when urban gardens transform empty lots and a child sees her first butterfly (from On Being this morning),

the culture of God is this close….

when a stranger offers you a random act of kindness —those are points when we feel the culture of God coming close…almost here….almost tangible, this close.

This is the good news Jesus proclaimed, and we, like those first disciples, are called into it, to embrace it and enlarge it.

When we talked about this cultural change at SLB on Tuesday, someone said it’s spelled LOVE. And wouldn’t that be a major cultural shift! Imagine a social order based on LOVE….imagine a church that actually lived its mission statement to bring God’s LOVE to all the world….hmmm

Follow me, says Jesus. It’s invitational, we have a choice; but it’s not wimpy. It’s actually quite a challenge: if we’re going to say we’re Christ followers this becomes a commanding tone and we need to actually follow (!) through.

We all, at some time, and in some areas, are followers --who do you follow on Twitter or Facebook? Or what teams do you follow, or which political party or candidate?

It is vital that we are discriminating in who and what we follow—look at your political party’s manifesto for example, or your company’s investment policies, or your family’s calendar or your own checkbook, or your church’s mission statement—are they in line with God’s culture? Does your participation in them bring about the culture of God? Who or what are we following?

Follow me means we go where Jesus goes (as opposed to inviting Jesus to come to where we are, which is how we often treat God)

AND learn about Jesus so we can BE like Jesus

AND move out of our cultural mindset into the culture of God.

That movement is the real challenge: disciples left their nets and livelihood for a whole new way of life. Some Christians ARE called to leave behind everything and go off somewhere, but most of us are called to leave behind everything and start out new where we are, with a new identity, Jesus people, a new attitude, following, and a new purpose—gathering people in.

Imagine still doing what you do, but with a God purpose.

Imagine saying what you say, but with an “other” orientation.

Imagine being who you are, but with a Jesus identity.

What would be different? What must be different if the culture of God is to reign in our world? Starting with you, with me, then with our families, then our church, what must be changed? Then our society, our policies, our politics, what must we work at changing?

To follow Jesus is a social action with personal, public and political dimensions.

Fish for people, Jesus said. This is not a call to add one more thing to your already overcommitted lives. No, Jesus calls us to change our inward, self centered mind into an outward, other-centered life, so that we can gather people in to this good news that’s transforming the world.

Good news is exciting! It’s worth sharing. Does this good news get you excited? As excited as the current political hype? As excited as the thrill of the road to the Superbowl?

If we get more excited about a sports event or political process than we do about God’s good news, no wonder nothing changes, no wonder God’s culture is still a ways off. We keep it at a safe distance. Shame on the church, which is supposed to be a movement that brings the God-culture close: visible, tangible, practical.

Get fishing! Share the good news that God’s realm is alive and well here at FUMC;

get involved in the God-culture stuff that’s going on and leave behind the cultural stuff that’s like wet fishing nets, heavy and useless.

And follow Jesus, nothing else. For it is Jesus who’s been there, done that, and can show us the way.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

baptism is dangerous

Waterwashed and Spirit-led January 8, 2012 Gen. 1, Ps. 29, Mk 1

Margaret Scott

(streamers of blue crepe paper hang in the sanctuary doorways; the font is front and center with blue waterlike fabric streaming down from it; there was a water fountain bubbling on top of font)

It should be pretty obvious today that things are a bit different; decorations gone from Christmas, new things here—what’s with the streamers and fabric and stuff?

If you’re on our weekly email list, you’ll be somewhat prepared for something that’s not business as usual…I commented in that email that we ‘ve made Christmas much bigger than it is in the bible- Jesus’ baptism is much bigger in scripture. Maybe we should be celebrating baptism anniversaries like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Christmas. Hmm, but maybe if we did, we’d just tame it, like we have Christmas.

And baptism isn’t tame, no matter how sweet we’ve made it with babies and photos. Baptism is dangerous.

One big clue to that is the combination of scripture readings for today, and the biblical imagery of water…..water shows up in all three texts, and none of it is gently dribbling from a tap, nor is it barely wetting a baby’s head

In genesis, the author imagines waters as the deep chaos before creation begins—everything is dark and formless and empty.

In the psalm, an ancient song sees the massive force of a storm lashing the country, whipping up waters below and driving rain from above while thunder echoes and lightning flashes.

In the gospel, the water imagery is a river, but not just any river, it’s the Jordan: a river that is vitally important historically and deeply symbolic to the people who’re coming to be immersed in its waters to prepare themselves for the one God will be sending to straighten them out…water that was a crossing point to a new life in the people’s history is now a turning point in their present, and a decision point for their future.

Does any of this sound tame?

This past week I was in Scotland, and the country was lashed with violent gales and rain for three days, causing much damage, power down, traffic disrupted, and people told to stay home as it was dangerous….and that got me thinking about how all of these biblical water images are great images for times in our lives:

· Chaotic, out of control times, when we’re waiting for something creative to come out of it, waiting for a voice from God to bring order out of our chaos…times when everything feels dark and empty

· Stormy times, when we are disoriented by life (one of the Brueggemann stages John talked about last week) and we see the trouble we’re going through as somehow God’s fault, if not God’s activity, when God’s voice may seem angry and punishing…..

· Transition times when we are faced with the need to make decisions—confronting the past and turning to the future

No, none of this is tame; today is not business as usual in any way whatsoever. And into this rich water imagery steps Jesus.

The liturgical day called Baptism of our Lord is a day that confronts us with the waters of life, whether we’re in chaos or storm or decision, or even if we walked in here today in business-as-usual safety mode.

Some of its danger and discomfort is that it’s sacramental. It’s God’s work. Oh, yes, we might choose to be baptized or to bring a child for baptism, just as those people came to John. Just as Jesus decided to come too.

But what happens at baptism is God’s work. That’s why we ask you not to take pictures during baptism that distract all of us from the mystical power of water-washed grace that comes upon that child or you through the pastor and water. Joyous it may be, serious it is.

It’s a moment like Mark describes, a tearing apart of the heavens, eliminating the dividing line between heaven and earth, bringing the power of God’s Holy Spirit and indicating a very special relationship with God. Not tame. When the heavens are torn apart, nothing can ever be the same again—this is a permanent rupture. No more barrier between us and God, no more compartmentalizing God into a safe place up there somewhere.

To be sure, God says the affirming and loving words to Jesus, and to each of us: you are my child, I love you and you give me pleasure. But it’s more than a Mr. Rogers’ “It’s you I like” kind of affirmation, important as that is.

It’s a whole new image of God trying to break in on us….imagine a God who pours out grace without your having to do anything, a God who takes pleasure in you yourself, in who you are at your core, even if you’re the worst sinner in the world or can’t believe anyone would love you, let alone the God of the universes. The God whose Spirit hovers over chaos, whose voice thunders in nature….takes pleasure in me?

If/when I really believe that, it’s life-changing. But we’ve tamed the image of God into a sweet, loving, fairly harmless God.

Last week John quoted Brian McLaren, who challenged readers to step outside their small minded judgments into “God’s larger more gracious space”—to be able to see people like God does, “each one precious, each one in need, each one at once beautiful and broken and dangerous and dignified”

To see people that way is not tame; that’s not business as usual. That’s a whole different mindset. But as baptized Christians, that’s our call as beloved children of God; we don’t just receive God’s affirmation—like Jesus we allow it to direct the rest of our lives.

It’s in the torn places where God comes through, whether in our chaos or stormy days or decision making dramas, or in the torn places of our world that other people are experiencing, where Nobodies need to become Somebodies through the love and justice of God.

The call of baptism is a call to much more than the material level of life—ho hum, baptized, went to church, now back home to dinner and business as usual. No! It’s a call that involves all of us, body, mind and spirit.

The call of baptism is for us to move out of the water and on to the wilderness, to change our lives so we can be used by God in the cosmic business of world transformation. Nothing tame about that.

If you hear God’s voice, loving and calling you, and if you’re willing to say yes again to this dangerous mission, then I invite you to come forward as we all sing together Water River Spirit Grace—John and I will hold ordinary water, and you can use it in any way that means something to you (wet hands, touch a wet finger to your forehead or heart, etc).

Those not coming forward are invited to be in a spirit of prayer through the song where you are, and those who come be sensitive to those who are staying in the pew, for this act may not be for everyone.

But for all of us, let us open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s sweeping over us so God may give us what each of us needs, and God may make of us what the world needs…come to the water…..come.

Monday, January 02, 2012

A Time For...

A Time For…
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-13
January 1, 2012
J.W. McNeill
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13
3:1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

3:2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

3:3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

3:4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

3:5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

3:6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away;

3:7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

3:8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

3:9 What gain have the workers from their toil?

3:10 I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.

3:11 He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

3:12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live;

3:13 moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.

Some of you may recall the version of this text put to music by folksinger Pete Seeger in a song, Turn, Turn, Turn. It had its widest circulation in a recording by the group the Byrds in the late sixties with a memorable 12 string guitar accompaniment.

I was impressed at the time that a song with lyrics from the Bible managed to be so popular, but I also was uncomfortable with the song because of a couple of lines in particular that I could simply not accept. I could not accept that there was a time for war and I could not accept that there could be a time for hate.

Surely that could not be right. Hate is wrong and war is wrong. Case closed. Or at least in my teenage way of looking at things at the time.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is one of several so-called Wisdom books in the Bible. It is traditionally attributed to King Solomon, although Biblical scholars think it unlikely that Solomon wrote it.

To read this book in the context of the rest of the Bible is to notice a piece of writing that is unusual. The tone is often described as cynical or somewhat jaded. In the first chapter, the author says that everything is vanity and a striving after wind. That is: all is meaningless and hopeless.

There have been those who have wanted to remove the book of Ecclesiastes from the Bible because of its apparent pessimistic tone. But I think those who would do this have missed the point.

I think Ecclesiastes is written for a time in our lives when our experience of failure or frustration or even despair is about to overwhelm us. It is a word from a preacher who reaches out to us when  our ideals or our hopes or our dreams have been shattered and we are left confused about our place in the cosmos and God’s connection to it.

The Biblical theologian Walter Brueggeman outlines three stages that we might experience along with the Biblical writers of ancient times:

Orientation: God gives instructions, guidance, judgments, about what is right and good. We learn about justice and peace. We learn about God’s love and power. We hear an encouragement to be God’s people and what that means about how we should act and how we should be a part of virtue and blessing. We learn about God’s goodness and how God is at work in the world and how God has delivered the oppressed and the suffering into security and peace.  These teachings and these stories ORIENT us in the world. They give us a behavioral compass by which to assess or evaluate our own actions or the actions of others.  This stage of orientation is a fundamental part of getting us to understand and act in the world. It sets the stage for our striving and our activity in the world so that we may be energetic partners with God’s creative energy. We are on the path to be God’s people.

Disorientation: But for many of us, we eventually move into a stage of disorientation. We find that our experience of the world sometimes fails to live up to what we imagined were God’s promises. We find that even apparently good and righteous people are not always successful. We find that disappointments are common and frustrations are easy to come by. We discover that the world does not live up to our expectations and we can come to imagine that God has failed us. We can even find that our own actions and attitudes do not live up to the ideals that we have set for ourselves.

There are three basic alternatives when we find ourselves in the stage of disorientation:
1.     Some give up on God.
2.     Some give up on truth and live in denial.
3.     Some begin an argument with God and a kind of struggle that won’t give up until there is a resolution.

This resolution is what Brueggeman calls reorientation. If orientation is coming to understand the ideals that God’s love would embody in creation; and if disorientation is becoming aware of the gap between the ideals we came to expect and the realities we actually experience, then reorientation is coming to a more mature awareness of how God is mysteriously present even when we cannot yet make out God’s hand.

The writer of Ecclesiastes counsels that in this world, from our limited perspective, we are not able to see in all things how God is at work, or what God will be able to make out of the circumstances of our lives or the lives of those dear to us. From our limited perspective we are not even able always to know what is best for ourselves or our loved ones.

And so we are invited by the author of Ecclesiastes to turn our attention to what we do experience in this world: love and hate, war and peace, seeking and losing, gathering and scattering, weeping and laughing. These contrasts are surely a part of our lives and the lives of our love ones.

I don’t think that the author is saying that we are to think that everything is ok and war is as good as peace or hatred is as good as love. Instead, we are offered the perspective to lay aside for a moment our need to judge or evaluate or criticize or even strive to correct what is wrong – because much of the time we can’t fix what we think is wrong. We are sometimes called to simply trust that God is at work in all things and often the best thing we can do is simply appreciate it.

Brian McLaren, a favorite author of mine, has written a book, Naked Spirituality 12 Simple Words. I’ve been reading it slowly. Putting it down and coming back to it. I’m getting toward the end of it. The prayer word I’m reading about now is “Behold.” The stance toward the world that simply takes it in and appreciates God’s glory in the world. Here is one of the exercises McLaren recommends that might come out of an understanding of today’s passage from Ecclesiastes (From page 204):
…you could go to a public place and practice beholding people with God. You'll no doubt hear your chattering, analyzing, critical mind assessing each one in accordance with its own agendas, desires, drives. and neuroses: fat, thin, rich, poor, stylish, frumpish, sexually  attractive, sexually unattractive, my kind of person. not my kind of ­person, Christian. non-Christian, and so on. Instead of living within this cramped space of judgment, observe it-behold it from a distance. "There it goes again." you might say with amusement. My limited human mind is acting as I were God and I were qualified to judge these people." Consciously separate yourself from that small mental courtroom; step outside it and above it into God's larger, more gracious space. Allow the Spirit to help you see these people in God’s light- each one precious, each one in need, each one at once beautiful and broken and dangerous and dignified. Whenever you find yourself shrinking back into the dualist, courtroom mind, simply observe it, name it, and step outside it as you return to a more generous, gracious beholding with God.

This brings me back to my judgment of this passage in the song Turn Turn Turn. In those days my narrow judging vision held me back from appreciating that like it or not there was going to be war and hate. I do not have to lead with my judgment into the world.

I can lead with my wonder. I can lead with my compassion. I can lead with the love God has been trying to offer me. I can lead with the freedom that trusting God’s goodness and not my critique can provide.

Lord’s Supper is free time. Time to behold in ourselves, in those around us, in the meal itself the awesome presence of God.

Behold. Be open to love. God is here.

Thanks be to God.