Gospel of Mark, Lent

“We call BS” (Mark 2:13-28)

Picture from CNN Español

You’ve probably seen her on TV, in a clip from a speech she gave. Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez showed remarkable rhetorical skills, both for her age, and given the shock and grief she must be suffering.

She called out the adults, the government, the authorities we wish our children could trust – and she said it sadly at first and then with increasing power, in what became a refrain that the crowd joined. “We call BS!” (Read the whole speech here.)

In the first part of Mark we saw Jesus as teacher and healer, and in a discussion of sin he turns theologian, but in the last paragraphs of the chapter, he becomes a preacher. He crafts an argument that could get an “Amen” by calling out the bullshit promoted by the religious leaders of his time.

Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. As the disciples made their way, they were picking the heads of wheat. The Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look! Why are they breaking the Sabbath law?”

He said to them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need, when he and those with him were hungry? During the time when Abiathar was high priest, David went into God’s house and ate the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat. He also gave bread to those who were with him.” Then he said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28, CEB)

Jesus put things in perspective. It sounds clever now. He reminded the religious leaders of a story they would have known well, making it clear the Sabbath is not a punishment or an enslavement for human beings, but a gift to them.

Of course, they didn’t want to hear him. Instead of considering a new way of seeing the Sabbath, a true way, they grumbled about him and plotted against him.

It seems to me that we live in a crucial time for being careful about who we let influence us. In the past week, as the young people from Parkland have been speaking out, people who oppose gun control have sought to discredit them, misidentified them, and spread lies about them. (There’s even a subset of right-wingers claiming the shooting never happened, as they have been doing for five years about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.)

Who will we listen to? The authorities of any time and every religion tend to use that authority to maintain the status quo and with it their power. It’s easy to go along with the biggest person or the loudest voice. It’s what people do when they benefit from the way things are, either directly or indirectly. These kids, though. They know how to use the communications structures that have been part of their whole lives to make a statement.

Do you suppose enough people will listen to them? Will we call BS?

Jesus, be a megaphone for these kids. Amen.


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent. Want to read along? I’m using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I am also referring to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible. Tomorrow I’ll be reading Mark 3:1-12. You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.

Children, Church Life, Family, Reflectionary

Why would anyone go to church now?

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

The Boy wondered this, watching the news about the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas. He has reached the age where he hears about the news at school, so we have become more open to having him hear and see things on TV, rather than trying to shield him from the hard things that happen. We need to be able to answer his questions ourselves. I don’t know if you have heard the common talk of 7th grade boys lately, but it definitely requires some counter-influences.

“Why would anyone go to church now?” He asked us again. “The doors are unlocked! Anyone could come in.”

It’s true that in church we are a special flock of sitting ducks, focused in one direction, both physically and spiritually. I rarely look around in church, when I am sitting in the pews, other than when we pass the peace. I estimate how large a crowd is behind me by the sounds they make. I’m trying not to seem overly interested in who is late, or whose children are making noise; I’m trying to be a good pastor’s wife.

Up front, as the pastor and preacher, it’s different. I’m counting heads, noting who is missing. But even then, I am not worrying about disaster, or I haven’t been, even though I know Kathryn has a plan in case someone dangerous comes into the sanctuary.

Experts offering their two cents worth on cable news recommended that churches review their emergency plans and look into security systems of staffing appropriate to their size and situation. Maybe, they suggested, someone in the congregation is already wearing a weapon to worship.

I know this is true in some of my colleague’s congregations.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

It’s not clear yet what the shooter’s relationship to religion was. His social media accounts were quickly archived, but not so fast that some bad actors didn’t have a chance to create alternative “likes” and loyalties for him. What does seem to be clear is that a man with a history of domestic violence threatened his mother-in-law, and then he shot up the church she attended. This morning the President suggested that had a neighbor not fired at the shooter, there might have been hundreds of deaths. A better guess is had he not been given chase, his next stop would have been his mother-in-law’s house.

“Why would anyone go to church now?”

We did our best to reassure The Boy, pointing out that the shooter did not choose a church at random. I’m not sure how comforting that is, really. How was a guy who cracked his infant stepson’s skull out on the street to do this? He choked his wife; he punched his dog. Why don’t we take these clusters of behavior seriously? We don’t because we undervalue harm done to women/children, overvalue white men and their chance of a future. This is magnified when we add race, sexual orientation, gender identity to the victim side of the equation.

The permission given to this man to keep assaulting other people, the pattern of abuse he inflicted on others before Sunday, the ready availability of a weapon that can kill, terribly, so many people, so quickly – all these factors remain for other abusers, other men who cannot manage their anger or their disappointment or their frustration, who cannot resist the temptation of power and have the means available to deal out death.

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Joshua 24:15)

It might not be fair for me to make suggestions about what churches should do about their security when I am not serving one right now. Our own history as people of faith is problematic. Joshua and his house pledged to serve the Lord, but in the Promised Land, they used all their available weapons and powers to kill the people they saw as enemies, and to gain the land they wanted. They saw being the chosen ones as permission to deal out death. We should not be surprised that righteousness and power have been confused and conflated throughout human history.

Why would anyone go to church now? Our boy doesn’t drop his questions until he gets a satisfying answer, and he usually asks them again, just to be sure. We will go because it’s what we do, just like we ride on a bike path, or go to the movies, or attend a concert. We will go because most of us cannot maintain the kind of hyper-vigilance required to be on watch at all times. We will go because we want to be with the people we know and love. We will go for solace, and solidarity.

That is not enough.

I’m not saying this is easy. In the United States, we worship our guns like no other nation in the world, and some will say more guns are the answer. I do not believe this. We need to be direct in saying the god of guns is a false god. As much as I believe Jesus is among the grieving, I believe he is also pressing on his church to engage with the powers and principalities and say “No more!” Our culture privileges the powerful; often our church culture does the same. Yet we know Jesus proclaimed a preferential option for people who are marginalized and oppressed. We need the church to be a place where we talk about why mass shootings happen. We need to have those conversations and let God be part of them. We need to decide whether the church will be not just a voice speaking but a body acting to bring change in human priorities and understanding. If we have any power left as an institution, we must work together for good, in Jesus’s name.

I could stay screened here across the street, watching for unfamiliar vehicles and people, but I want more than the safe view from my window.

As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

cropped-cropped-view-from-my-window.jpg

 

Prayers for Pastors

Preach peace (a prayer for pastors)

Each Advent I think
surely next year peace
won’t still seem like
a far away impossible.

I look back now
to times of war
and they seem logical;
although I revile them,

I can understand them.
A map of allies,
an axis of powers,
a reason to fight,

purported at least.
Disagree with it
I might; I did.
But comprehend? Yes.

Now we live in the midst
of the incomprehensible:
never-ending violence.
We are all someone’s enemy.

IMG_0030A voice said “Preach!”
And I said,
“What will I preach?”
What can I?

Preach peace.
Preach peace
over everyday terror
and murderous prejudice.

Preach peace
over control fantasies
and casual violence
and the lies of fear.

Call it far away,
but not impossible.
Then work together
to make it so,

in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermons

The Promise of Peace

A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

The straight path
My straight highway

Wednesday night I came over here from Mechanicsburg to pick up a few things I needed to get ready for the Sunday School class this morning. I’d been vaguely monitoring the shooting in California all afternoon, but hadn’t heard a full report. It was business news on NPR, so I switched to AM and hit the button over and over until a station came in clearly. An anchor and reporters were giving play-by-play, in essence, of the search through a neighborhood for a suspect. The anchor referred to images on the screen, so I deduced that I was listening to a radio stream of cable TV news, Fox as it turned out.

Lots of assumptions were being made, as is typical in the early hours of a breaking news story, and communications were dropped and picked up again, and a second anchor came on and the two disputed each other’s interpretations, and finally a reporter on the ground said a word or two, but his mic went dead, and they broke for a commercial.

The strains of cheery holiday background music filled the car as a man’s voice exhorted me to buy a Sig Sauer pistol for Christmas. Surely someone in my family needs a new weapon!

And don’t I want ammo? They have lots of it, and it’s “cheap, cheap, cheap!”

I turned off the radio, convinced of the total depravity of humanity. This is America in 2015, a place where we let the unthinkable go by day in and day out.

This time three years ago I was trying to help a congregation make sense of the shooting in a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school. We had a high proportion of both active and retired teachers, and they were distraught and despairing. One after another they came to me and told me how they treasured their students, how there was no worse nightmare for a teacher than being unable to protect the children in his or her charge.

A week after, we marked the time of the attack at a memorial service in our sanctuary. We rang our church bell with grave solemnity. We read the names of the dead. Then we stood in a silence broken only by muffled sobs, watching each other light candles. As I closed the service in prayer, we thought, we *all* thought, “Things have to change. This will be the event, the tragedy, that makes our country take gun control seriously. This will be the one.”

It was not the one.

A voice cries out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up, 

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Over the past month we’ve read stories about the many ways the people of Israel and Judah ignored their relationship with God, not only by worshiping false idols but by treating one another with violent disregard, shedding the blood of the innocents.The Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. The Southern Kingdom, after a brief attempt at getting its act together under Josiah, lost its power to the forces from Babylon, and over time two great deportations took place.

God let the terrible inevitable happen.

We’ve taken a jump in their history here of almost 100 years, to a time when the exile in Babylon will soon be over and Isaiah the prophet brings the exiles a reassuring message:

Take comfort, people of Israel. You broke your relationship with God, but you have served your time and paid your debt. You are going home. God is going to straighten things out, and the images are of leveling – valleys lifted up and mountains and hills made low and uneven ground smoothed out and rough places made plain. People come and go, but God is eternal and will get you home again, like a shepherd leading his flock.

God promised an easy path on the journey to restoration of their community.

NY Daily News
The Daily News

It’s a promise of peace, peace of mind and peace of heart.

I wish we could go there, too. Perhaps someday. But as I look around at our world, I see us two steps behind the restored community, fighting in such terrible ways and harming so many innocent people. As the New York Daily News headline read the other day, “God is Not Fixing This.”

We are living our own terrible inevitable.

+++++

My friend Wendy Lamb is Worship Associate at First Presbyterian in San Bernardino. When her kids were released from a school lockdown on Wednesday, they didn’t say much at first, but she writes:

As the afternoon went on, my children talked more and more about what their day was like. My daughter was in Chinese enrichment class and her class was goofing around as in a drill until her regular teacher returned as quickly as she could. And said the words: This is not a drill. They read books and ate lunch under their desks. The kids who brought lunch were ready to share with the kids who get cafeteria lunch and they were holding some back in case they needed it for dinner. She said it was hard to remember that the day had started normally with Math quizzes and early English class.

It was hard to remember that the day had started normally with a staff meeting and angry emails from part time staff member.

It was hard to remember that the day had started normally.

And I fear that because the suspect is who he is, our culture of violence won’t be blamed, but his religion will be.

Not only was this my city, but he was a student at the school where I taught when I taught there many years ago. I opened a yearbook and found his class picture and his picture in the Friday Night Live club.

It was hard to remember that the day had started normally.

+++

This is not what we want for our kids, to imagine them hidden under their desks, waiting to be sure it is safe to come out again.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

The word translated “cry out” can also be rendered as “preach.”

A voice says, “Preach!” And I said, “What shall I preach?”

I’m telling you the truth, it’s hard to preach about peace in a world that seems to specialize in violence and cruelty. If we’re tempted to blame it on someone else’s religion, we need to remind ourselves of those little children in Newtown, a slaughter of the innocents that had no motivation related to faith or politics. We need to question other Christians who support more guns and more killing as a way to keep their favored portions of the population safe. We need to ask ourselves, and be honest in our answers, “What can we do to change the direction the world seems to be going?”

And we need to acknowledge that the world has felt like this before. Jesus began his ministry in a community occupied by violent forces, at a time when people didn’t know who to trust or what to believe. The first sign that something might change was a man in the wilderness, offering baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John reminded the people of images 600 years old, of a valley lifted up and hills brought low, of a great flat spirit land that allows everyone to see God’s glory clearly.

The voice crying, whether Isaiah or John – that voice is not crying out to God. That voice is crying out to us. Prepare for God to come. Get ready to follow God’s way. Get ready for a new viewpoint on what it all means. For God’s sake, get ready.

Schoolchildren are ready. Alongside their fire drills, they have lockdown drills.

We don’t want to think of our children, knowing exactly what to do, huddled under their desks. It isn’t what we want for them.

But there is something in my friend’s story that we do want, very much, and I believe it’s something God wants, too: the children who had food broke bread with those who had none; then they kept something back for later, so that everyone would have enough.

Maybe that’s our promise of peace in the midst of the terrible inevitable, a picture of a world where the valleys are exalted and the lunch is shared and the glory of the Lord will be revealed for all to see.

In the name of the One who is coming, Jesus Christ. Amen.